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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

African Agriculture needs more than a Green Revolution

Four years ago, I visited a gutsy grandmother in a village in western Kenya. Ann was 75 years old then.

On a tour of a her half-acre estate we stopped at a vantage point, a termite mound on the edge of her farm, for a beautiful mid day view of her field and the village beyond.

Ann’s field, like her neighbors’, was planted with a local maize variety. In the village beyond, tin-roofed homes looked like shiny islands in a sea of yellow leaved maize. The maize was thin, with spindly stalks, and barely knee high.

Ann recounted memories from three-quarters of a century living on the land. She talked about a drier climate, barren soils and poor yields, denuded hills and scarlet rivers and frequent floods. She talked about the water hyacinth and the collapse of the native haplochromine fisheries.

Ann talked about hunger and malnourished children and the flight of young men from the land.
She remembered her youthful years when the water was clear, when fish were abundant, when the hilltops were green and lush, when the harvest was plentiful and her grandmother’s granary was filled to the brim.

“There are just too many of us, each scrambling for space to live, land to grow food, and pasture for our livestock. We toil harder on barren fields, for a paltry harvest, much less to eat and nothing to store. The big trees, the expansive grassland, the wetlands, the butterflies, the colorful birds and the wild animals of my grandmother’s folktales stories are no longer here. It is a very different world.” Ann remarked thoughtfully.

I have told this story before. But it is especially relevant today.

A recent study by the Institute for Security Studies revealed, unsurprisingly, that  40 percent of  Kenyans live in extreme poverty; earning or spending less than Sh.160 ($1.75) a day.  Over 90 percent of Kenya’s poor live in rural areas, where there livelihoods depend on subsistence agriculture and pastoralism.

Last week, Devolution and Planning Cabinet Secretary Anne Waiguru announced that 1.6 million Kenyans in 23 arid and semi-arid counties are faced with famine and will need assistance in the next six months. From my own experience, working in the coast and in western Kenya, a majority of rural households eat less than two meals a day 9 out of 12 months in a year. We know that nearly 40 percent of children born in Kenya are stunted.

In another continent-just an ocean away- and in Anne’s lifetime, a green revolution doubled cereal production. And even as the population increased by 60 percent, cereal and calorie availability increased by nearly 30 percent. The Asian Green Revolution stimulated the rural nonfarm economy, which in turn grew and generated significant new income and employment of its own. Real per capita incomes almost doubled in Asia between 1970 and 1995. Poverty declined. Malnutrition, as proportion of the population, retreated. And Asia prospered and Africa stagnated.

Ann’s story is an indictment on six decades of stagnation. It is an indictment on African governments. It is an indictment on the international development and research community. It is an indictment on Africa’s academic and research institutions. It is an indictment on all of us.
Although there has been some progress, it is neither deep nor good enough.

We have failed because a disproportionate number of African families are staggered by poverty and hunger. Over 40 percent of Africa’s children will not live their full potential because they are stunted. Africa rising will be stymied by unconscionable and grinding inequality, which is also an existential threat social and political stability. 

Africa needs more than an Asian style Green Revolution. Africa’s farming systems are far too complex compared to the narrow cereal production systems of the green revolution. Africa is the perched continent. Cheap mechanization is not feasible. Soils are inherently infertile and respond poorly to inorganic fertilizers alone.

Solutions for Africa’s agriculture must not be formulaic but integrated. It cannot be based on a big bet for maize alone like Bill Gates suggests in their 2015 Annual Gates Letter. Africa must leverage ago-biodiversity and ecological principles such as agroforestry to build resilience and harness natural capital. Africa also needs genetic intensification to enhance genetic fitness to adapt to climate change. Africa needs responsive fit-for-purpose institutions to support research, access to financial services, inputs, markets and value addition.

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