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After decades of decline, sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural sector grew more than three and a half percent last year.  The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says nearly all the growth was due to smaller farms. 

The FAO calls the improvement "a break with the past" and says the outlook for the agricultural sector is "improving." 

Keith Wiebe, the deputy director of the FAO's Agricultural Development Economics Division, says there are several reasons for positive performance.

"After a long period of neglect, the importance of agriculture is becoming more clear to all of us.  And that is resulting in improvements in some of the supporting services and infrastructure that are the real obstacle to improved growth in Africa," he says.

A new FAO paper says the gains are "driven" by improved policies, better response to higher commodity prices and technological advances, such as drought-resistance rice.

But the U.N. agency warns that "concerted and purposeful policy action" is needed to keep the current momentum going.  That includes more spending on agriculture.

"We need to think of that in very broad terms, not just in terms, for example, of fertilizer or new seed varieties…but…investments that support agriculture.  And that can include roads and communications.  And...things like investments in education and health that strengthen…human capital, their labor power," he says.

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About 80 percent of sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural sector is made up of smallholder farms.

"Most of Africa's farmers today are smallholders.  In the longer term, there's a big question as to what the structure of agriculture will look like in 2050.  And this is what we've invited experts to Rome next month to talk about," he says.

The High-Level Expert Forum will bring together 300 experts from the academic, NGO and private sectors to discuss challenges to feeding the world in 2050. 

Sub-Saharan Africa's population is expected to grow to nearly two billion by 2050 - up from 770 million in 2005.  That will place greater demands on food production.

Wiebe says trying to predict conditions 40 years down the road will help avoid complacency once the current food and economic crises end.

"We want to seize the momentum, take advantage of the attention and the resources that are being committed to agriculture now and to make sure that those are applied in a way that addresses long-term challenges," he says.

The Rome forum will be held October 12th and 13th.  

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