In the Poland of the late 1940s, a Moscow-inspired socialist government decided to go ahead with a controversial collectivization land reform that was deeply unpopular and took away all decision-making from local landowners and farmers.

It was a clear example of the then popular ideology that anyone who owned anything more than two horses must be a village “capitalist”, must inherently be exploiting fellow comrades, and should therefore be punished for his or her wrongdoings. Over the course of the next few years, the government expropriated more than 9,700 farms from their original owners, covering over 3.5 million hectares.

The reform, much like similar initiatives in other Soviet bloc countries, failed after it encountered difficulties with poor management, disastrous productivity, and virtually no engagement from the disenfranchised farmers.

As an entrepreneurial company with Polish roots this backdrop serves as a constant reminder to me of the need to engage with grass-roots customers to hear their views and deliver practical solutions to their daily lives and livelihoods.

Much commentary on global food security gravitates to discussion about grand schemes applied at inter-governmental levels to address trade balances and provide top-down aid and funding for developing nations that rarely gets down to the grass-roots. But for us, the main lesson from our history has been to put our faith in our local customers and farmers. They do know better than anyone: at the end of the day, they work the land and tend to their crops every day of the year.

This is exactly our strategy as we develop our business globally. We support our customers who buy our fertilisers in getting the best out of their land; they often have their own dedicated advisor who travels to meet them in person, gets a better understanding of their needs, and talks through their options.

As we are now expanding our business into Africa, starting with our recently established operations in Senegal, we want to continue along this path.

We are working with the Senegalese government and the Senegalese people to support their work with well-researched, thought-through investments that are focused not only on maximising yields, but on developing sustainable operations and strong links with local communities. That is the only way to contribute to a global solution to the food security question.

Let me explain why.

It may sound clichéd, but it is nonetheless a fact that that the world population is growing more quickly than ever before. The World Health Organisation estimates that there are 7 billion people in the world; twenty years from now, the population will rise to 8.5 billion; and by 2050 it will be close to 10 billion.

According to the FAO, in 2012-2014 around one in eight people in the world, around 800 million, were estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger, regularly not receiving adequate nutrition to live an active life. The international community has worked hard, and successfully, to reduce this number: it has fallen by 100 million in the last decade alone, and by more than 200 million since the early nineties. Latin America and the Caribbean countries have indeed made significant progress, while sub-Saharan Africa and Western Asia, affected by armed conflicts and natural disasters, have been more limited in their ability to reduce hunger.

From our point of view, farmers in Africa use significantly fewer fertilizers than anywhere else in the world. Even a small increase – affordable, sustainable and safe for environment – could bring dramatic improvements. Our significant, global experience in their sustainable use can make a difference.

But fertilisers and new technologies, even the very best, are not enough to bring general prosperity to the wider population. It is not just about farming; it goes far beyond that.

It requires cooperation between all parties – investors, governments, local communities, and farmers – and it can only make a positive impact when all the pieces of this jigsaw are in place.

It is also about safely storing the crops, processing them, making sure they actually get to the people who need them most. There are no ifs, no buts – if any investment is to be successful, it needs to address all areas of everyday life. It is about ensuring a peaceful life in local communities, providing education, creating jobs for the locals, empowering people economically and socially. It is about involving them in the decision making processes: investing with them and in them, not only on their land.

We are looking forward to contributing our experience, participating in the global debate, and moreover helping deliver sustainable solutions on food security into the long term.

Author: Paweł Jarczewski, CEO, Grupa Azoty. Chairman of the Technical and SHE Committee of the International Fertilizer Industry Association. 

Image: Ethiopian farmers Mandefro Tesfaye (L) and Tayto Mesfin collect wheat in their field in Abay, north of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, October 21, 2009. REUTERS/Barry Malone