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Maximizing Africa’s potential to feed Africa

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

“Will 2013 be pinpointed as the year in which Africa’s ‘Green Revolution’ finally took root?” asks Carolyn Fry in her blog post earlier this year.  Let’s hope so.  In the wake of the 10-year anniversary of the Maputo Declaration and the inception of CAADP, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) will host the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW) in Ghana next week.  Enabling Africa to feed Africa will be the major theme of this year’s AASW—but this requires much more than just a Green Revolution. Achieving food self-sufficiency is complex and multi-faceted.  A number of opportunities and challenges have been identified on this blog over the past year, of which many will likely be discussed next week during AASW.

Never too young: a boy learns about refugia crops in Kenya.  Photo: CIMMYT on Flickr Never too young: a boy learns about refugia crops in Kenya. Photo: CIMMYT on Flickr

Untapped potential

With irrigation covering only 5% of cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa, there is huge potential to improve yields and food security through agricultural water management.  A recent IWMI-led study found that enabling farmers to better irrigate their crops through investments in motorized pumps could benefit 185 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and generate net revenues up to USD 22 billion per year.

Rural Urban Migration

Demographics in Africa are quickly changing with significant migration of people to urban areas and off of rural farms and the resulting feminization of agriculture.  It seems that young people “do not want to continue in the drudgery of farming that their parents have gone through. Their aspirations are way beyond the farm gate and they should be allowed to pursue their ‘dreams’,” writes Andrew Noble, Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.  “Unless we change the status of farming within the wider community and society that promotes a vibrant, exciting and rewarding career, I am of the opinion that we will have failed in our mandate to address the plight of smallholder farmers…‘they are the food machine of the world with 2 billion of them producing more than 70 percent of all global food’,” says Dr. Noble during a speech in Canberra.

Elevating the status of farming is challenging indeed but may be essential in ensuring Africa has the agricultural labor force it needs to feed itself.

Small vs. Large Farms

If smallholder farmers are “the food machine of the world”, then what’s all this talk about large farms? “Among the issues exercising the minds of those concerned with the future welfare of the African continent and its people is the issue of farm size,” writes Stephen Carr.  But, Carr believes that the key to smallholder farmers’ success is not the size of their land holding but their access to intensifying farm inputs, namely fertilizer.  The comparatively low yields of staple food crops on small-scale farms in sub-Saharan Africa may be attributed to the fact that they have access to only 5% of the level of fertilizer per unit of land as compared to their East Asian counterparts; improving access to farm inputs such as fertilizer may decrease the yield and self-sufficiency gaps between Africa and Asia.  Nonetheless, the debate on farm size is a popular one with Carr’s blog piece generating over 150 comments. 

Cash Crops

Unmet promises of big money from biofuel crops, such as jatropha, have also done little to enhance food security in Africa, claims Fred Pearce.  Smallholders have suffered significantly from low yields of what promised to be a cash generating crop.  While the promise of jatropha was still on the rise, it was the number one cause of land grabs in Africa.


How can Africa feed Africa if it’s feeding the rest of the world first?  Over 140 hectares of smallholder farms, pasturelands and forests in sub-Saharan Africa have been sold or leased to big agricultural investors.  And investors may not only be after land.  “Expectations of secure access to water have been cited as one of the underlying reasons for large-scale acquisitions of land by states,” especially among states where water resources are limited or where local water scarcity is beginning to emerge, cites Tim Williams in his study on “water grabbing”.

“Hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest and least well fed people are being told to get off their land, to get out of the way so that agri-business can get on with feeding the world,” writes Fred Pearce.   There is no doubt that Africa needs investment in rural agriculture, but landgrabbing deprives “the most vulnerable of the ability to feed themselves.”  For Africa to feed Africa, policy and investment needs to support smallholders, not marginalize them.

Equitable Land Rights

Solidifying equitable land rights is one way to mitigate the marginalization of smallholders.  Female land ownership across Africa is as low as 20%, writes John Leckie in his recent blog post.  Without formal land rights, women can suffer un-proportionally from landgrabbing and have greater difficulty accessing resources and credit.  “Women usually perform the role of food producer and household manager, making sure all household members are fed.”  Securing land tenure for women will allow them greater influence over land assets and greater control over household incomes and welfare—all which will help women ensure household food security.

Africa has the potential to feed itself now and into the future.  Engagement with partners and stakeholders is a critical component of the AASW conference and will be an important factor as researchers and development practitioners work to enhance Africa’s potential to achieve food self-sufficiency.

For more information on the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems' involvement in AAWS, visit our AASW page here.