The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has urged stakeholders to redouble their efforts in supporting farmers to boost production.
Farmers are at the centre of Africa's agricultural transformation agenda. Therefore, clear agricultural policies such as access to inputs including seeds and fertilizer, as well as credit facilities and extension services are needed to improve yields.
With the momentum now building towards the 34th SADC Summit to be held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe in August, regional leaders are expected to review the general agricultural situation in the region to ensure that challenges hindering the sector are addressed.
The 34th SADC Summit is being held in the year declared by the African Union as the "Year of Agriculture and Food Security," and will see Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe assume the SADC chair from his Malawian counterpart, and lead the region for the coming year.
The SADC region has adopted a raft of measures to revolutionize the agricultural sector, which contributes between four percent and 27 percent of the regional Gross Domestic Product (GDP), and about 13 percent of the total export earnings.
The measures, which include investing more in research, improving access to financial resources for smallholder farmers, and increasing budget allocations to agriculture has seen the region record some impressive advances in food production.
For example, in the past decade, the agricultural growth rate in the region has averaged about 2.6 percent, according to the SADC Secretariat.
The general food security situation has remained relatively stable with most Member States recording good harvests every year.
A recent food security assessment for the 2013/14 agricultural marketing year reveals that there was an increase in the production of maize - the staple food of most countries in the SADC region.
Cassava production, another staple food in parts of Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia, was also above the estimated requirements.
In addition, the regional production of livestock products is increasing, albeit at a slower pace.
But, what specific interventions has SADC implemented to achieve such steady progress towards regional food security?
One major strategy includes enhancing the capacity for the dissemination of research technologies to farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, who make up the majority of farmers in the region.
Access to such information is critical for planning purposes, especially when farmers want to diversify into new crops or livestock.
In this regard, SADC has invested in regional organizations such as the Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA) to ensure the provision of adequate and relevant services to regional farmers.
Speaking at the 1st General Assembly of CCARDESA, the SADC Executive Secretary, Dr Stergomena Lawrence Tax from Tanzania, said the region should support its farmers as most continue to experience challenges in their daily work.
"One of the major weak points in the stimulation of agricultural led growth in SADC has been the lack of a strong base for technology generation and public-private partnership models for commercialisation of technologies," she said.
Dr Tax said climate change had also become a main challenge threatening food security in the region, hence the need to develop appropriate technologies for adaptation and resilience.
"This calls for careful consideration of resource allocation and applied research which can give results of immediate use to farmers in improving the resilience of their production technologies and farming systems to climate change," she said.
"In this regard, I wish call upon CCARDESA and its stakeholders to place considerable attention on the needs of farmers in the development of programmes."
These programmes include improving the transport network and storage facilities so that agricultural produce can move smoothly from one place to another.
Storage facilities allow farmers to store their harvest for use in poor seasons, but post-harvest crop losses are estimated to be as high as 40 percent in the region, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Regional water infrastructure development such as irrigation will allow the region to farm all year around and not only depend on climatic conditions. The potential for irrigating land in the SADC region is large as the region is hugely endowed with watercourses such as the Congo, Limpopo, and Zambezi rivers.
Agriculture is the backbone of most economies in southern Africa hence the sector should be identified as a priority area of development.
For example, more than 62 percent of the SADC region's 277 million people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods, according to the SADC Secretariat.
Dr Tax also urged the region to increase food production to keep pace with growing population.
She said while food production can be increased by increasing the area of land to be used for agriculture, "this is not a viable option in the SADC region, the most desirable and sustainable option before us is to increase productivity so that more food can be produced per unit area of land."
She said there is need for the region to engage and co-opt the youths into agricultural development.
"As we celebrate the African Union year of Agriculture and Food Security, we need to launch a SADC-wide youth programme to create opportunities in agricultural value chains and building agricultural entrepreneur."
The 1st CCARDESA General Assembly was held in May in Gaborone, Botswana. CCARDESA is a sub-regional organisation established in July 2011 to coordinate the implementation of agricultural research and development in the SADC region.
Located in Botswana, the CCARDESA aims to coordinate and stimulate agricultural growth through research, technology development and dissemination of research information to farmers.
Another key approach by SADC to boost production has centred on increasing budget allocations to agriculture as well as targeted subsidy programmes that result in farmers accessing agricultural inputs and farm implements at cheaper rates.
This is in line with the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which was formulated in 2003 by the African Union to encourage countries to reach a higher path of economic growth through agriculture-led development.
Under this continent-wide programme, African governments made a commitment to allocate at least 10 percent of their national budgets to the agricultural sector each year.
Ultimately, this ambitious and broad vision for agricultural reform in Africa aspires for an average annual growth rate of six percent in agriculture.
Most countries in SADC including Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe have already signed the CAADP agreement and are making vigorous efforts to meet the targets. Zimbabwe has crafted a national agricultural and food security investment plan to attract key investment in the sector.
In addition, the country has adopted a blueprint called the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset) to help shape economic transformation and development for the next five years, spanning October 2013 to December 2018.
Food Security and Nutrition is one of the four main clusters identified in ZimAsset to lead this economic transformation and development. The other three focus areas are on Social Services and Poverty Eradication, Infrastructure and Utilities, and Value Addition and Beneficiation. sardc.net
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