Accessibility links

Breaking News

Innovative African Agricultural Projects Inspire Hope - PART 1 of 5

The World Bank has praised some projects in Africa it says could significantly boost food production in the near future. Africa is in the midst of a farming crisis and experts are warning that little money is being invested in the continent’s agriculture sectors. With developing countries in Asia reaping the food-generating benefits of a so-called “green revolution,” Africa’s the only continent where per capita food production is declining. But a World Bank initiative has identified and rewarded several projects set to improve the lives of smallholder farmers and citizens in Africa.

Governments in developing regions and international donors are providing little funding for agriculture, so the World Bank has turned to social entrepreneurs in an effort to combat the negative fallout from food shortages, devastating food price hikes and lack of investment in the sector.

“A social entrepreneur is someone who focuses on helping the poor and the disadvantaged people in society. That’s what motivates them and sets them apart from your typical businessperson. They’re a special breed of entrepreneurs who focus on social change,” explains Juergen Voegele, the bank’s director of agriculture and rural development.

Voegele, who has worked to improve agriculture in the developing world for almost two decades, is a key figure behind the World Bank’s Development Marketplace initiative. The program gives start-up funds to projects it thinks will ultimately reduce poverty in some of the world’s poorest areas.

Voegele says social entrepreneurs are the “primary elements” in the initiative’s success.

“(They) generally tend to be ambitious people. They really want social change; they are social champions and they take things on that most people would consider very difficult to do. Social entrepreneurs are not driven by money or power generally; they want to make the world a better place.”

Recently, the Development Marketplace’s expert evaluators selected 100 finalists – out of about 1,700 entries from around the world – to showcase their ideas aimed at improving agriculture in developing countries. Farmers, academics, students and scientists were among those trying to win World Bank funding. Almost 40 percent of the entries came from sub-Saharan Africa, says Theresa Bradley, Development Marketplace team leader.

“This surprised us, but sub-Saharan Africa has a rich community of organizations that are really on the cutting edge, that are really trying to find creative solutions that can be unique for the challenges that Africans face…. A lot of innovation is happening in Africa, so we tend to get a lot of good ideas from them,” she says.

After a rigorous process, Bradley’s team awarded 22 projects – five from Africa – grants of about $200,000 each, to tackle challenges in agriculture at a local level.

African entries impress

Voegele says he was struck by the quality of ideas emerging from Africa.

“Many of them are focusing on energy efficiency and also smallholder farmers who can’t get access to markets. Those are both big issues for poor smallholder farmers in Africa.”

One of the winning entries from Africa was from William Kisaalita, a biological and agricultural engineering professor at Uganda’s Makerere University and the University of Georgia in the United States. His project transforms devices that are used to cool beer in Europe. The adapted technology is to be used by Ugandan small-scale dairy farmers to allow them to transport milk that would otherwise have been wasted to distant markets.

Another winner was from Tanzania. There, businesswoman Christine Adamow, assisted by a team of East African scientists, discovered that oil pressed from non-edible nuts from the indigenous Croton tree could be used as biofuel in diesel engines and generators. Adamow is encouraging Tanzanian farmers to plant the tree, to provide them with extra income and give the region a valuable new fuel source.

One of Voegele’s favorite projects was a similar winning entry from Senegal.

“It uses locally-produced biofuels for outboard motors, so fishermen and farmers can get their produce to the market without having to buy expensive diesel,” he tells VOA.

In Senegal, as in many other African countries, farmers and fishermen can’t sell their produce because markets are often too far away for them to walk to. They’re also too poor to pay for truck transport and roads are often in disrepair. In addition, transport along waterways is extremely limited. But in Senegal, says Voegele, a project is using a technology that heats raw, unrefined seed oil, “straight from the press and into the fuel tank, without any extra processing.”

The World Bank official describes the Senegalese effort as “really quite unusual.”

“This was a couple of young Senegalese guys who said, ‘we want to do something that everyone tells us can’t be done.’ And they did it. And (that’s) phenomenal, and we’ll provide them with a significant amount of support to take this to the next level. They’ve proven the concept, they’ve shown it can be done (and) it’s relying on local resources. It has both the business foundation, but it also has the potential to be scaled up on quite a significant scale.”

Voegele hopes the funding provided to the winning projects will “ultimately put them in a position to scale up what they have invented – either initially on a smaller scale, but also eventually on a countrywide, national or regional level. What they will use the money for really depends on the individual project.”

He says such initiatives typically use the money to recruit international experts to refine their ideas, to train their employees and to buy more raw materials.

Agriculture neglected in Africa

Voegele states that African agriculture faces “numerous” obstacles.

“There’s great difficulty for the smallholder farmers in Africa to have access to seeds, inputs and fertilizers…. And then there is the huge challenge of bringing their products to the market. Access to markets is a phenomenally big challenge.”

He adds that African farmers also often lack the information necessary to enable them to progress.

“They don’t know what the market wants, they don’t know where to get seeds from, they don’t know what is the best management practice, etcetera, etcetera,” says Voegele.

But Theresa Bradley’s confident that many African innovators in the field of agriculture are confronting the challenges “head on.”

“A longstanding, traditional problem in agriculture is access to markets, from rural to more urban spaces. We focused on this area, looking for cutting edge solutions to enhance access to markets…. And many of the projects delivered with regard to this,” she says.

But Voegele is disappointed with what he terms the “neglect” of agriculture in Africa.

“The amounts of money that are being spent on agricultural research have been declining; the amounts of money in national budgets of governments that are being used for investing in agriculture…have declined. This is a trend that we urgently need to reverse,” he warns, and elaborates: “I mean this in a broader sense; not only with regard to agricultural production, but also with regard to access to markets, market development, supply chain development, infrastructure development, information services development….”

Voegele says the recent food price increases, and related “volatility” in agricultural markets, are a “wake-up call, for people at the international level, and in places like Africa, that new investments must be made in agriculture.”

He says he’s encouraged that African authorities are “finally” beginning to acknowledge this.

Voegele emphasizes that it’s of the utmost importance that governments, whether in the developed or the developing world, consider the effects that their policies have on agriculture.

“If countries have trade policies that either make it difficult for products to be exported or difficult for products to be imported, you will always have a problem,” he says.

“We have to be confident”

Voegele acknowledges that it’s “particularly concerning” that Africa’s the only continent where per capita food production is decreasing. There are several reasons for this, he says.

“There is really the issue of not being connected to global markets, there is the issue of not having access to the inputs, there is the issue of not having a conducive environment in many African countries for private sector investment – and of course not enough funding.”

But the main reason, Voegele maintains, is that “priorities have shifted away from agriculture. There has been this notion that agriculture is not really important for economic growth. But the fact of the matter is that it’s extremely important for economic growth, particularly in Africa.”

Yet the World Bank’s most recent report on global agriculture says that for every dollar invested in the sector, the return is up to three times higher than the same investment in other sectors in Africa.

Voegele says he’s encouraged, though, by growing numbers of “innovators” emerging from Africa who he hopes will counteract lack of agricultural development there.

“We have to be confident. I believe that what happened during the last year, with food prices going through the roof, that…there’s now a lot of energy and enthusiasm to get agriculture back on a good path.”

Voegele says there are now “hundreds and hundreds” of people in Africa who are dedicated to improving the situation and he sees “a lot of positive things” happening.

“They’re working on more efficient fertilizers, more environmentally-friendly technology and…we see a lot of big private companies now taking a more socially responsible approach and trying to link their sourcing of raw materials directly to smallholder farmers. And people are working on innovative ways to get information technology into the marketing chain, into the supply chain.”

Voegele acknowledges, though, that it’s not going to be easy to resolve all the challenges facing agriculture – especially in Africa.

“All of us involved – governments, development agencies, the people themselves – still have a long and hard road ahead of us.”