* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Scientists are making an effort to align their research priorities with what matters to African farmers
How to help “Africa feed Africa”? That was the main topic of discussion among a broad coalition of stakeholders at the sixth Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW), hosted by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the Government of Ghana this month.
AASW built on other recent high-profile events focused on food security and nutrition in the context of the global development agenda, such as the Dublin Conference on Climate Justice in April and the G8 Summit in June.
They, and now AASW, demonstrate the central role that research has to play in achieving food security on the continent. With a growing population of young people and abundant land and water resources for agriculture - not to mention 60 percent of the world's available cropland, according to McKinsey&Company - Africa holds vast potential to address the global crisis in food and nutrition security.
Bringing together the continent's agricultural experts and researchers, policy makers and donors from across the world, AASW therefore offered a powerful forum to examine the role of scientific research in Africa's development, as well as how to put that research into action.
To achieve this and to realise the best outcomes, the watchwords of the week were partnership – with those in attendance needing to lead by example - and alignment of local development priorities with research priorities.
Included in the estimated 1,000 attendees at AASW were nearly 100 representatives from CGIAR, the global agricultural research partnership for a food-secure future. CGIAR has a significant commitment to the region. Four CGIAR Research Centers are headquartered on the continent and more than half of CGIAR’s research budget is invested in projects in Africa, to help countries improve food security, increase incomes, and manage natural resources in sustainable ways.
This commitment was also demonstrated by the presence at AASW of the majority of the 15 CGIAR Research Centers and many of the global CGIAR Research Programs that are working to support agricultural development in Africa – from crops, livestock and fish to natural resource management.
PARTNERING FOR CHANGE
The theme of this year's AASW, Africa Feeding Africa through Agricultural Science and Innovation, is central to the ethos of CGIAR. With over 870 million people still going to bed hungry and a quarter of the world's children under five stunted due to malnutrition, farmers and agricultural innovations have a critical role to play (FAO, 2012).
And partnerships are the way that CGIAR will ensure these challenges are met, with success in supporting African food security efforts already being seen as a consequence of collaboration.
For example, a partnership between three of CGIAR’s Research Centers - the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) – and the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) has worked to develop more drought and pest-resistant crop varieties for smallholder farmers in difficult conditions.
Data from ICRISAT shows that the adoption of these crops has resulted in a 59 percent increase in groundnut harvests and a 38 percent rise in pigeon pea harvests. Starting in Kenya, the plan is to roll out the project across the Horn of Africa, which has faced its worst drought in 60 years and will be highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change.
ALIGNING RESEARCH PRIORITIES
To optimise Africa’s resources, agricultural research priorities need to be driven by the needs of those who will contribute most significantly to improved food security in Africa: smallholder farmers. This means forming strong partnerships with those who can help ensure that the focus of agricultural research aligns with local priorities, and that the results of research are made available to people on the ground.
This is no better demonstrated than by the work of the CGIAR World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), which launched the Participatory Tree Domestication Programme in Cameroon in 1998, working with local farmers to develop superior crop varieties allowing communities to maximise yields and nutrition from what they grow.
The programme involves rural communities selecting, propagating and managing trees according to their needs, in partnership with scientists, civic authorities and commercial companies. In just five years, farmers in Cameroon were getting an average of 31 percent more for kernels and an 80 percent increase in revenue as a result of higher yields.
CGIAR is also contributing to this effort by making sure its research priorities fit with those of African countries.
The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) have collaborated with the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project (DTMA) run by Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security and Chitedze Research Station, to introduce a new drought-tolerant maize hybrid to Malawian farmers, which was tested by farmers.
This new hybrid produces yields of up to eight tonnes per hectare and will contribute to the subsidy program that has seen Malawi become self-sufficient in maize production.
Today, organisations such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and the UN-backed Global Gender and Climate Change Alliance (GGCA) are collaborating with CGIAR, demonstrating that the need to invest in innovation in agriculture is being recognised within development policy.
As these examples show, CGIAR's work on the continent involves listening and responding to the voices of farmers to understand their challenges, and then working with them and partners to find practical solutions that can be scaled and adapted to suit their needs. This is essential if we are to truly employ agriculture to alleviate poverty in Africa and beyond.
Piers Bocock is director of knowledge management and communication for the CGIAR Consortium.