Sustainable Development

How Africa’s smallholders can feed the world

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. For centuries, farmers like Berhanu Gudina have eked out a living in Ethiopia's central lowlands, tending tiny plots of maize, wheat or barley amid the vastness of the lush green plains. Now, they find themselves working cheek by jowl with high-tech commercial farms stretching over thousands of hectares tilled by state-of-the-art tractors -- and owned and operated by foreigners. Picture taken October 21, 2009.  To match Special Report FOOD/AFRICA  REUTERS/Barry Malone (ETHIOPIA ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY AGRICULTURE FOOD) - GM1E5BC0R7R01

Ending hunger by 2030 is achievable. Image: REUTERS/Barry Malone (ETHIOPIA ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY AGRICULTURE FOOD)

Usman Ali Lawan
Writer, Project Syndicate
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Sustainable Development

In the rural village of Kura in Kano State, Nigeria, where I grew up, my grandfather would lose more than half of his tomatoes after each harvest. He was not a bad farmer. But bad roads made it difficult for him to get his tomatoes to market, and he had never learned modern methods of preserving them. In an effort to salvage some of his produce, he often dried his tomatoes on the sand.

This is still true of about 80 million rural farmers in Nigeria. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, as much as 50% of fruits and vegetables, 40% of roots and tubers, and 20% of cereals, legumes, and pulses harvested are lost before they reach a market. Less than a half-mile away from a major tomato-paste factory in Kadawa, Kano, Nigeria, some 200 rural farmers dry over 40 trailer-loads of fresh tomatoes in the sand every week.

This lack of knowledge and resources among rural farmers contributes substantially to global food insecurity. After all, in the developing world, rural smallholders – most of whom own less than four hectares of farmland – comprise the majority of all farmers. In fact, rural people produce three-quarters of the world’s food, yet they constitute 80% of the world’s poor.

Delivering enough food to feed the world’s population requires farmers to overcome a series of often-unpredictable challenges, related to factors such as climate change, water scarcity, lack of access to extension services, and armed conflict in agricultural areas. As a result of these challenges, millions of people have been driven from their homes, prevented from working their fields, unable to get their products to markets, or cut off from supplies of improved seedlings, fertilizer, and financial services.

And the challenges continue to escalate. The number of food emergencies – when disasters such as drought, floods, or war lead to food-supply shortfalls that demand external assistance – has risen from 15 per year, on average, in the 1980s to more than 30 per year since 2000.

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The result is widespread food insecurity. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, more than 820 million people worldwide lacked access to sufficient food in 2017; more than two billion people experience deficiencies of key micronutrients; and more than half of the people living in low-income countries are not sure where their next meal will come from. If current trends hold, the amount of food being grown will feed only half of the world population by 2050.

But these trends can be changed – and Africa is a good place to start. As Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and winner of the 2017 World Food Prize, has put it, “Africa in the future should not only feed itself but it must contribute to feeding the world.”

Any strategy to boost food security must emphasize increasing productivity and reducing post-harvest losses. To that end, governments and agro-processing companies should each be doing their part to advance cost-effective measures that take advantage of new technologies, strengthen infrastructure, and offer training and support to rural smallholders. Governments, through their various agricultural programs, can help rural farmers to form cooperatives, where they can leverage their collective strength. Private firms, for their part, can provide those farmers with extension services and inputs, and serve as major bulk buyers of produce.

This is a proven approach. In Kebbi State, Nigeria, the Anchor Borrower scheme for the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria – implemented in collaboration with the Central Bank of Nigeria and a government loan program – has boosted rural farmers’ output and incomes, by helping them to form cooperatives, providing training and inputs, and guaranteeing a buyer.

When designing any such scheme, policymakers must make sure to promote sustainable farming practices that minimize agriculture’s use of natural resources, including soil and water. All governments should commit to ensuring that their agriculture, food, and nutrition policies are aligned with modern dietary guidelines, which emphasize variety and sustainability in largely plant-based diets.

The international community’s goal of ending hunger by 2030 is achievable. But success will require a commitment from both governments and the private sector to help rural farmers shift to sustainable – and profitable – agricultural practices. If that happens, then not only will we end food insecurity; Adesina’s prediction that “the next generation of billionaires in Africa will be farmers” may come closer to being realized.

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Related topics:
Sustainable DevelopmentAfricaClimate ChangeInequality
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