Africa will help feed 9 billion by 2050

by Pedro A. Sanchez | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Friday, 31 October 2014 15:00 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Africa's green revolution is now a vibrant movement, giving hope that sub-Saharan Africa will feed itself by 2050, even with a population of about 2 bln people then

Africa south of the Sahara remained at the bottom of the world´s food production at the end of last century, with a third of its people hungry and average cereal yields one tenth of those obtained in north America, Europe and Japan (1 metric ton per hectare or 16 bushels of corn to the acre). 

Africa was bypassed by Norman Borlaug´s green revolution, because the main biophysical constraint was not addressed---the depletion of soil fertility in smallholder farms, which impeded high yields of improved seeds and the efficient use of water resources.  

Several major political constraints--poor governance (only 3 democracies in 1990), low priority given to agriculture by governments and donors alike, rampart corruption, poor infrastructure  and a broken food value chain exacerbated Africa’s position as the world´s basket case of hunger, poverty and disease. 

The situation has changed very much for the better since 2005. Cereal yields are up by 50%, still a miserable 1.5 tons/hectare, but the trend is up for the first time since records were kept. Out of the 49 countries of sub-saharan Africa, 17 have already achieved the hunger Millennium Development Goal including the two most populous, Nigeria and Ethiopia. 

What were the drivers of this change? On the macro side there are now 23 democracies; 15 countries grew at average annual rates of 6 to 9% of their GDP during the last 5 years--- the same range as China and India. 

Still Africa has the world´s highest poverty rate (70 US cents of income per person per day), one of the highest levels of inequality, poor access to finance and huge vulnerability to climate change. 

On July 5, 2004, then UN secretary general Kofi Annan called for a uniquely African green revolution based on soils, water and seeds, improved child and maternal nutrition; market access and enabling policies. Malawi was the first responder, transforming a 45% deficit of maize production in 2005 into yearly surpluses during the following 8 years, because yields increased from 0.8 to an average of 2.0 tons per hectare. 

New initiatives followed in 2006, such as the creation of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Millennium Villages Project. 

But to me the tipping point happened when the private sector, spurred (again) by Kofi Annan at a meeting in Davos in January 2007, joined the effort providing support and expertise across the value chain. 

The first link of the value chain (inputs and financing) is now being repaired using subsidies, but  more recently risk sharing facilities, credit guarantees to back up a portion of bank loan defaults  by smallholder farmers who have no collateral. 

Governments and donors are now providing over $3.5 billion in several countries enabling the banking industry to reach the poorest farmers. Electronic wallets have been used by 14 million farmers in Nigeria to access credits and smart subsidies, buy agricultural inputs, sell their crops, and pay bank loans using mobile phones. 

The second link is crop production itself. This is where the CGIAR, its national partners and the private sector continue to provide  improved germplasm, agronomic practices, integrated pest management, nutrient management and post-harvest technologies that double or triple crop yields in farmer fields, not only yields of the basic food crops, but also products such as cocoa and camel milk.  

New research priorities should focus on breeding and agronomy to better adapt to and mitigate climate change. This includes drought and flood-tolerant cultivars, food-based human nutrition, effective soil and water testing tools, effective incorporation of organic inputs into mineral fertilizer-based systems, and full utilization of internet-based tools. (Having worked at three CGIAR centers at different stages of my career---graduate student at IRRI, program coordinator at CIAT and director general at ICRAF---I consider this unique international  system one of humanity´s great assets.)

The third link is market access where both governments and the private sector must work together, facilitating the timely sale of crops, livestock and tree products at the right time and at the right price, minimizing food losses and maximizing revenue. Infrastructure is a major component of this link

The fourth link, processing and distribution, is also private sector-led and government-enabled, finally linking the chain that starts in the soil and ends in the stomach. Eliminating prohibitions of GMO crops after careful testing at the local scale is part of the enabling government policies needed.

Women and young people are beginning to take advantage of improvements in the value chain, obtaining employment or starting IT-based businesses and advisory services. 

Women produce about 80% of Africa’s food valued at about $15 billion now. More than half of Africa´s population of about 1 billion people is under the age of 25. If that youth is educated well, many 21st century-type jobs can be filled by them. Africa currently imports $35 billion of food annually. A significant portion of those imports can be replaced by agribusinesses run by women and young people.

I have clearly seen at the last two AGRA forums in 2012 and 2014 a congruence between governments, science, NGOs, the private sector and development partners that did not exist before. The African green revolution is now a vibrant movement, giving us hope that sub-Saharan Africa will certainly feed itself by 2050, in spite of having a population of about 2 billion people then. 

In addition to all the positives and negatives I have described, Africa has a major asset: happy people, despite of their circumstances.

Pedro A. Sanchez is director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center and senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

At the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue from October 15-17 in Des Moines, Iowa, the World Food Prize Foundation and CGIAR Fund co-hosted an online, high-level op-ed series titled The Greatest Challenge in Human History: Sustainably Feeding 9 Billion People By 2050. This highlighted how agricultural research and development are not only tied to food security and nutrition, but that they are also central to achieving many of the forthcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Read more: 

How can we sustainably feed 9 billion people by 2050? - Kenneth Quinn, World Food Prize Foundation and Jonathan Wadsworth, CGIAR

The future of food and farming depends on climate action today - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO, Kanayo F. Nwanze, International Fund for Agricultural Development and Ertharin Cousin, WFP

Progressing crop research to impact at scale -  Marco Ferroni, Syngenta For Sustainable Agriculture

The face of hunger is not partisan - Rajiv Shah, USAID

Delivering on Norman Borlaug’s call to action - Andrew Youn, One Acre Fund and Tony Kalm, CGIAR Fund

Elevating civil society from advisers to partners for a food secure world  - Tony Hall,  Alliance to End Hunger

New wheat breeds can help avert food security disaster - Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize Laureate

Rising to "the greatest challenge in human history" - Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO 

Achieving zero hunger with help from smallholder farmers - Ertharin Cousin, WFP 

Tending the future - Pamela Anderson, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Sustained investment in global agricultural research key to feeding 9 bln people sustainably - Gebisa Ejeta, Purdue University