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Expert: Africa's Farmers Must Demand More from Governments

Africa's farmers need to demand more from their governments in order to meet the continent's -- and the world's -- growing demands for food, says Akin Adesina, vice president for policy and parterships at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

Hunger rates in sub-Saharan Africa are the highest in the world, and research shows agricultural productivity in Africa is not keeping pace with population growth. Adesina says governments have let agriculture decline because they could.

"My own belief is that the political cost of inaction, of not taking action in agriculture in Africa, is way too low," he says, "And that's why politicians always ignore it."

But he says rising food prices and the instability that comes with them are changing the equation for African leaders. In Uganda, high food prices have helped to trigger protests against the government. The turmoil follows unrest in the Middle East in which soaring food prices were also a factor.

"I think the days are over when agriculture is treated with lip service," he says. "If a politician wants to survive in Africa today, and they're smart, they'll focus on agriculture and create jobs for the youth."

Adesina has spent the last two decades working to improve the productivity of Africa's farmers and has won several awards for his work improving access to fertilizers and better seed. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed him to a panel of advocates for the Millennium Development Goals.

"Wasting money" on food imports

The U.N. food agency lists 70 low-income countries that are heavily dependent on food imports; 39 of them are in Africa. Adesina says Africa is wasting its money importing food because the potential is there not only to feed itself, but to help feed the world -- if governments are willing to support agriculture.

He says Malawi provides a good example. After requiring food aid during a major drought in the early 2000s, the government began providing subsidies for fertilizer and seed.

"Within one year -- one year -- it fed itself. It became a major exporter of maize," he says. "For the last five years, Malawi is a net food exporter. So, what that tells me is that the African farmer is no different from a farmer in any part of the world. They're just not supported right."

But Adesina adds that supporting farmers' productivity is only the beginning.

"There's no point if a farmer is producing and they can't get a road -- a basic road -- to connect them to markets," he says. Governments should be investing in this kind of infrastructure -- roads, electric power, irrigation, and so on, he says.

He notes that many African nations are taking steps in the right direction. Twenty-five have signed a compact to commit 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. But far fewer have met the target so far.

Outside interest

Adesina says that as food prices rise worldwide, other countries are buying up large tracts of land in Africa to produce food for themselves.

"If others are coming to Africa who want to try to produce food in Africa, that tells me that we have a potential that we have never unlocked that others are seeing," he says.

But he does not think it should be other countries that unlock that potential.

"If they did that, they will get all the benefits of reduced food prices, they will create more jobs in their own countries, and obviously they don't have to pay a lot of money to import food. Those are benefits that Africa should keep for itself."

He says African governments can keep those benefits by investing in the basic infrastructure to turn fertile areas into breadbaskets. Then those regions can trade with others looking to meet their growing needs for food, feed, fuel and fiber, creating a win-win situation.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.