A couple of years ago I visited a feisty grandmother in village near Lake Victoria in Kisumu County. Ann is 75 years old and barely ekes out a living on her family farm. She happily volunteered to give me a tour of her half-acre estate. We stopped at a vantage point, a little mound on the edge of the farm, for a picturesque view of her field and the village beyond.
Like all her neighbors, Ann’s field was planted with corn. Grass-thatched and iron-roofed homes looked like islands in a sea of pale corn. In the middle of the growing season, the corn was thin with spindly stalks, barely one meter tall.
Ann recounted memories of three-quarters of a century spent on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. She talked about poor yields and barren soils, scarlet rivers and dusty fields, denuded hills and flash floods. She remembered her youthful years five decades ago as a fish trader, when the water was clear, fish were abundant, the hilltops were green and lush, and harvests plentiful.
“There are just too many of us,” Ann remarked. “All of us scrambling for space to live, land to grow food and pasture for our livestock. We work a lot harder for much less to eat and nothing to save. The large trees, the colorful birds and animals of my grandmother’s stories are no longer here. It is a very different world.”
My gaze rested on a bare patch, which exposed what could be the root cause of the withered corn. The Earth’s fragile skin, the soil, was wounded and pale, drained of all vital minerals. Gulleys scarred the landscape, evidence of sustained hemorrhaging of fertile soils.
Most farmers in rural Kenya and indeed sub Saharan Africa are like Ann, mostly women, hardworking but poor and malnourished. On a per-capita basis, they produce roughly 30 percent less than they did in the 1970s.
Ann is one of about 15 million of Kenya’s 31.5 million rural folk live on less than $2 a day. It is therefore not surprising that Kenya and a majority of sub Saharan Africa are unequivocally off track for halving extreme poverty by 2015.
Urban growth and rural stagnation is opening a dangerous chasm of inequality in Kenya. The broader point here is that extreme inequality can constrain poverty reduction in low-income countries. The smaller the poor’s share of any increment to income the less efficient growth is as a mechanism for poverty reduction.
Africa’s quest to free herself from hunger and poverty is inextricable bound with the productivity and profitability of hundreds of millions smallholder farmers. But there is an enduring existential question: How can the hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers increase land productivity, profitability and human well-being outcomes without causing irreparable damage to the soil and water resources on which they depend?
In his book “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept out of Africa”, Robert Paarlberg observes that while modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science, including biotechnology, is yet to take hold in Africa.
Significant global financial resources are currently flowing to sub-Saharan Africa, where the international community has set ambitious goals for ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition through increasing agricultural productivity.
On May 18, 2012, President Barack Obama, with G8 and African leaders, businesses, international organizations and civil society will convene to discuss new activities to advance global agricultural development, food and nutrition security in Africa.
The focus of the Camp David meeting must be on improving productivity and profitability for Ann and millions of smallholder farmers like her, through investment in science, technology, input and output markets, and financial services.
To be productive and profitable, smallholder production systems need an enabling environment: plant, soil and animal health extension services; timely and accurate climate forecast; quality inputs (seeds, animal breeds and fertilizer); reliable water supply; stable land tenure rights; access to affordable financial services, including insurance; appropriate mechanization; access stable markets; value addition through cottage processing.
The creation of such enabling environment, public leadership is crucial as is public funding. The private sector must step up to the plate by creating new and divers value chains and in ensuring that the benefits flow to smallholder producers like Ann.
Ethiopia’s approach is both illuminating and inspiring. Ethiopia has created an Agricultural Transformation Agency, with support of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and chaired by the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The objective of the agency is to strengthen extant structures of government, private sector and other non-governmental partners to surmount systemic logjams in the delivery of agricultural productivity and food security. It is a model that could be replicated in Kenya and other sub-Saharan countries.