Over two decades ago, world leaders committed to reduce by half the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. Very little progress has been made, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Despite impressive GDP growth rates as well as laudable improvements in life expectancy and school enrollment, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world's most food insecure region. According to the first Africa Human Development report published in May 2012, more than 15 million are at risk of hunger in the Sahel and an equal number remain vulnerable in the Horn of Africa.
Although famines grab international attention and often move global humanitarian action, chronic malnutrition and episodic hunger are depriving African children of their future, undermining human development and stagnating the newfound economic growth.
Chronic hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is caused and sustained by a perfect storm of climate variability, food price spikes, soil fertility decline, collapse of vital public investments in inputs for smallholder farmers civil conflict, and exacerbated by the poor’s vulnerability.
Typically, experts believe that throwing quality seeds, fertilizers, extension support and access to markets at African farmers would boost productivity and eradicate hunger. Lessons from the Millennium Village Projects of the Earth Institute at Columbia University demonstrate that while inputs, extension services, research and market as are vital, they are insufficient to surmount vulnerability and eradicate hunger at the household or community level.
Later this week, African heads of state, ministers, farmers, private agribusiness firms, financial institutions, NGOs, civil society economists and scientists will converge in Arusha Tanzania at the African Green Revolution Forum. The purpose of this forum is to explore how to increase investments and catalyze innovation for sustainable agricultural growth and food security.
The Arusha forum must be different. It must not prescribe more of the old and failed narrow prescriptions. The forum must focus on securing investments and promoting social innovations that build the foundation for sustainable food production while enhancing the stability of national, regional and global food systems. In line with the Maputo Declaration of 2003, African governments committed to increase allocations to agriculture to 10% within five years. Nearly 10 years later, Kenya’s budgetary allocation to agriculture is less than 5.5% of the national budget.
The Arusha forum must encourage governments to recognize that building a food-secure future will only be achieved through socio-economic inclusion. Achieving food security in sub-Saharan Africa will remain out of reach so long as the rural poor, and especially women, who play a major role in food production, do not have sufficient control over productive resources and assets, especially land. Bridging the gender divide is vital. Studies have shown that when women get access to the same inputs as men, agricultural yields can rise by more than 20%.
Africa must end decades of marginalization of its youth. Governments must initiate policies and institutions that encourage the youth to engage in agriculture not merely as laborers but entrepreneurs who are more likely to adopt new technology and innovation, which is vital to modernization of Africa’s agriculture.
Africa’s agricultural policies have neglected nutrition. Biofortification of crops –making crops more nutritious through genetic modification and conventional breeding – together with well-regulated commercial fortification, could increase the nutritional value and variety of food.
There is need for a new approach to Africa’s agriculture, which invests in a monitoring framework to track changes in vital ecosystem services upon which agriculture depends. Like elsewhere, Africa’s agricultural expansion has had tremendous impacts on habitats, soil condition, biodiversity, water resources and carbon storage. Revitalization of Africa’s agriculture must deliver more food and societal welfare. Moreover, Africa’s agricultural transformation must deliver sustainable pathways for agricultural intensification, which increase productivity while reducing biodiversity and habitat loss, reducing unsustainable water withdrawals and eliminating water pollution from agricultural chemicals.
Novel production technologies and practices must also increase overall resilience of the agricultural system. It has be shown that although technological advanced production systems can deliver high productivity, they are vulnerable to perturbations such as disease, price fluctuations and climatic variability.
The socioeconomic and environmental trade-offs associated with increasing agricultural production are poorly understood. Moreover, the methods for evaluating such trade-offs are poorly developed. It is important to develop indicators and decision support tools to optimize management decisions to achieve high productivity while enhancing environmental sustainability.
With the appropriate legal framework, including environmental regulation large-scale land acquisitions could bring much needed investment to Africa’s under-resources agriculture. Foreign direct investment could increase liquidity in rural areas, build up rural infrastructure and modernize agriculture. Through increased use of inputs and investments in efficient irrigation, carefully designed large scale agriculture can build skills and improve productivity as well open new markets for local smallholder farmers.