Business and political leaders in Cape Town for the World Economic Forum on Africa say agriculture can fuel economic growth in impoverished countries. Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has stepped in to lead a new effort to double African farm productivity in the next 20 years. Terry FitzPatrick reports for VOA from Cape Town.
Saying that the path to African prosperity begins in the fields of its farmers, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan announced he will chair the recently formed Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
"It is very clear to me that we cannot pull our nations and our people out of poverty without a strong agricultural base," he said.
Financed by America-based foundations, the Alliance will distribute new varieties of seeds and fertilizers, build small-scale irrigation systems, and help boost access to agricultural markets. Annan says a six percent growth in crop output per year can end Africa's endemic cycle of famine. He will personally visit farms across the continent.
"The African farmer is a very intelligent person," he said. "If you demonstrate that things work, they will adapt."
Annan's new role was the highlight of a roundtable discussion on African agriculture. Experts noted that sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where per capita food production has steadily declined.
Florence Wambugu, who heads the African Harvest Biotech Foundation in Kenya, told delegates that previous efforts to boost agriculture have incorrectly concentrated on international trade.
"We are focused too much on export crops, giving them all the support, the coffee, the tea, and we have forgotten the crops that provide the food for the grassroots community: the sorghum, cassava, banana, yam and others. They have been left out of this," said Wambugu.
The panelists said that, as a result, one third of Africa's population is chronically undernourished.
One agricultural dealer in Malawi, Dina Rissle Kapiza, said revitalizing farms can bring badly needed income to impoverished rural areas. She said subsistence farmers need help to enter the world of commercial agriculture.
"These small scale farmers need to find markets," said Kapiza. "If we leave these people, the small-scale farmers, stuck in the mud, we are nowhere. We will reach nowhere. "
The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has raised $150 million so far. The chairman of the Development Bank of South Africa, Jay Naidoo, says it will take far more to create the infrastructure needed for a robust agriculture sector.
"How do we finance the road to the village? How do we finance the cooling facility if you're collecting milk? How do we finance processing if you are producing fruits or vegetables?," he said.
Naidoo says improvements will cost billions of dollars. With a high-profile leader such as Kofi Annan spearheading the effort, the hope among delegates here is that the money will be forthcoming.