Policymakers and researchers agree on innovative agenda to avert persistent food crisis
4/25/2012 12:37:19 PM -
Intensified droughts, desertification and other extreme weather events accelerated by climate change will continue to wreak havoc on West Africa's Sahel and other vulnerable African regions unless massive new investments are made into re-invigorating farm research, getting resilient crops and livestock to farmers, and advising farmers on climate-smart practices, according to leading experts and policymakers meeting in Accra this week.
'We need a paradigm shift that transforms African agriculture. The mindset that we can sustain ourselves through subsistence farming has trapped the continent in a cycle of famine and failed harvests,' said Monty Jones, Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). 'Africa's farmers do not need pity. They need support. They need improved seeds and other inputs, and timely advice on how to use them. Governments play a key role increasing farmers' access to innovations being developed by researchers across the continent.'
According to Jones and other experts participating in the Second Ministerial Dialogue on Increasing Agricultural Productivity in Africa, farmers need greater access to improved, resilient seeds, fertilizers, irrigation, weather insurance and other means to improve their farm production.
West Africa's Sahel region is located at the southern edge of the Sahara desert. Countries in this region are highly vulnerable to climate change due to strong dependence on rain-fed agriculture, according to researchers. Recurrent droughts in the 1970s and 1980s devastated the region. Failed harvests and massive livestock deaths resulted in widespread hunger, malnutrition, massive displacements of people and shattered economies. Yet most climate models predict that the Sahel region will become even drier in the coming decades. The situation is exacerbated by severe land degradation and encroachment of the Sahara Desert.
'The Sahel is facing its second major famine over the last five years. Poor farmers are trying to grow food on barren soils that are literally turning to deserts beneath their feet,' said Ramadjita Tabo, Deputy Executive Director of FARA. 'Sahelian countries and others across Africa must significantly increase their investments to improve productivity and enhance the resilience of our own agriculture and ecosystems. This is the only path to stability, sustainable development and food security. Governments need to make these technologies available to smallholder farmers, most of whom are women, at affordable prices and at the right time.'
Several countries across sub-Saharan Africa have put in place subsidy programs to increase farmers' access to inputs. Other initiatives being led by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and others are working with commercial banks to develop loan guarantee schemes to increase farmers' access to finance.
The Ministerial Dialogue brought together African ministers of agriculture, science and technology, parliamentarians, research heads and other experts to discuss the status of continent-wide efforts to transform African agriculture and increase farm productivity and how to mobilise resources needed to support research, extension and education institutions related to agriculture.
'Research is generating a lot of outputs but there's a huge bottleneck with getting them out to farmers,' said Salim Nahdy of the African Forum for Agricultural Advisory Services (AFAAS). 'Extension has traditionally played the role of getting innovations out to farmers, but we still are not reaching farmers. Farmers need advice that will help them adapt to rapid, dynamic changes like globalisation, volatile markets, ICTs and the mobile phone revolution and climate change.'
Organizations like FARA and AFAAS are working on a range of initiatives to develop innovative tools to share information, knowledge and provide advice to farmers on how to improve their yields, provide them with market information, and share experiences.
Amongst experts, Africa's mobile phone and ICT revolution is widely seen as one solution to helping farmers get around problems associated with poor infrastructure in rural areas. Farmers in Ghana, Kenya and other countries are already seeing the benefits of extension services and market prices through their mobile phones.
'These early successes are paying for farmers,' said Myra Wopereis, Director of Knowledge and Technologies at FARA. 'They are demanding more services in their efforts to find solutions to their daily farm challenges. Mobile phones have transformed radio from a passive channel for delivering information into an interactive service where farmers can call during broadcast. Mobile companies are beginning to realise that this is a good business opportunity for providing targeted advisory services to farmers. FARA is working to catalyse innovative solutions to organize the huge knowledge resources across Africa that could be tapped to provide such services,' she added.
'We are working with at least 34 countries across Africa to train scientists and extension workers to be better facilitators of agricultural knowledge,' said Wopereis. 'This process also gives us and our partners an opportunity to engage the youth. Young people are responding.'
FARA is working with new university graduates to train them to be knowledge facilitators between farming communities, extension workers and scientists.
'Young people are ideal for this job. They are more tech savvy, but they also speak the local language. They are very dynamic and innovative. Their engagement improves the image of agriculture as a business opportunity rather than just development work,' she added.
In a communiqué issued at the close of the Dialogue, the ministers and representatives of the governments of 25 countries endorsed, inter alia:
Establishment of a Ministerial Advisory Group for agricultural science and innovation
Creation of a funding mechanism to stimulate both public and private investment across Africa to sustain transformation of agriculture
Development of national ICT policies to encourage investments in knowledge management and targeted information for agricultural extension and advisory services delivery
Establishment of an Innovation Fund for Agricultural Transformation (IFAT) to generate funds for all stakeholders within the value chain with an added advantage of insurance for farmers