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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Why drought and hunger in Africa spells opportunity for global agri-tech

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Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOClimate change is leading to more intense drought conditions in Africa. Small and marginal farmers, pastoralists and nomadic communities are the most vulnerable and the hardest hit. Already. aid agencies have warned that 10 million people are already facing severe food shortages, particularly in the landlocked countries of Chad and Niger, after a drought led to the failure of last year’s crops. As many as 400,000 children are at risk of dying from starvation in Niger alone, according to Save the Children.

The Independent of Britain has reported that unusually heavy rains have washed away this year’s crops and killed cattle in a region dependent on subsistence agriculture. Organisations including Oxfam and Save the Children say that the slow international response to the emergency means that only 40 per cent of those affected are receiving food aid. As many as four out of five children require treatment for malnutrition in clinics.

Against this grim new news, the global agri-technology networks are readying plans to use possible food shortages to push new structures of seed, funding and conditions onto countries looking for quick fix solutions. One such programme ia the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which has announced that it received a major boost as several countries have begun drawing on funds from a US$22 billion pledge made by the G8.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOUnder CAADP, African governments are committed to increase their national budget expenditure on agriculture to at least 10 percent. The Programme, agreed by heads of state at the 2003 summit of the African Union, expects a six percent growth rate in agriculture every year. What part of this growth will meet the needs of the drought-hit people in Chad and Niger is not discussed.

Close behind is the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT, one of the CGIAR centres) which has used the alarming food situation news as a prop on which to announce a study which it says “finds widespread adoption of recently developed drought-tolerant varieties of maize could boost harvests in 13 African countries by 10 to 34 percent and generate up to US$1.5 billion in benefits for producers and consumers“. Who will these producers and consumers be?

The study was conducted as part of the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa Initiative (DTMA) implemented by CIMMYT and IITA with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. CIMMYT and IITA have said they “worked with national agriculture research centers in Africa to develop over 50 new maize varieties that in drought conditions can produce yields that are 20 to 50 percent higher than existing varieties”. There is no mention of Africa’s immense wealth of traditional cereals or the communities that have guarded and used old growing knowledge in difficult times.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOFinally, from August 30 to September 4, Namibia hosted the annual Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) Regional Food Security Policy Dialogue, where over 200 policymakers, farmers, agricultural product dealers, scientists and non-governmental organisations from across Africa and the world gathered “to address African priorities on climate change and its impacts on food security, agricultural development and natural resource management”.

The tone and tenor is astonishingly upbeat, especially considering the dreadful food situation and climate change news that’s now coming out daily from central, eastern and north Africa: “Increasing the collaboration between public and private sector organisations can also help build infrastructure, secure better access to natural resources, improve the distribution of agricultural inputs and services, and share best practices. The Farming First coalition is a successful example of farmers, scientists, engineers, industry and agricultural development organisations coming together to push for improved agricultural policies which benefit farmers while safeguarding natural resources over the long term.”

FANRPAN has cited two reports by consulting firm McKinsey and Company which have (1) estimated that Africa produced only 10 percent of the world’s crops despite representing a quarter of land under cultivation and (2) noted that 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land lies in Africa with the potential for African yields to grow in value more than three-fold by the year 2030, from US$280 billion today to US$880 billion.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOThose extraordinarily large sums may explain why FANRPAN is currently working in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation “to improve food security throughout sub-Saharan Africa by promoting the understanding of climate change science and its integration into policy development and research agendas”. FANRPAN said it is also working with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) – a study cell based in Washington, USA, whose research objectives have tended towards international agricultural trade in recent years. A recent collaboration is called ‘Strategies for Adapting to Climate Change in Rural sub-Saharan Africa: Targeting the Most Vulnerable’ which says it recognises the interrelated impact of climate change on household poverty, hunger and food security.

No doubt, but these high-minded statements of objectives come bundled with some decidedly commercial conditions. As IPS news reports, there are conditions attached to how countries will be accessing CAADP funds. Countries will need to have gone through the CAADP process, which includes designing a “national investment plan” which contains detailed and fully-costed programmes and signing a “CAADP compact”. This is nothing but an agreement between the government, regional representatives and “development partners” for “a focused implementation of the programme”. Moreover, the investment plans will have to undergo “an independent technical review” and the plan should also “have been tabled before a high-level CAADP business meeting” before funds are allocated. Which simply means that there are only so many ways the money can move.

Agriculture in Africa. Photo: FAOFor all these noble programmes, the countries in their sights are: Angola, Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The aid agencies on the ground are warning again what they have said last year, the year before, five years ago, a decade ago. “After six months without proper nutrition, these children have little resistance to disease,” said Severine Courtiol, Save the Children’s Niger manager. “There is little children can do to avoid coming into contact with this contaminated, disease-ridden floodwater. That’s why it’s critical we make sure they get enough food so they are strong enough to fight off and recover from sickness.”

Robert Bailey, Oxfam’s west Africa campaigns manager, said that some food was available in marketplaces in Niger, but was too expensive for ordinary households to afford. As a result, many were reduced to eating leaves and berries. Chad and parts of Mali were also affected, he added. “The international donor response has been too little too late. We estimate that 7.9 million people are affected by food shortages in Niger, with only 40 per cent receiving international aid. The other 60 per cent are dependent on the government and NGOs [non-governmental organisations]. But the government has no food.”

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