MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA
But the severe dry spell parching croplands across the US is only the latest in a global cycle of increasingly frequent and damaging droughts. In Africa's Sahel region, millions of people are facing hunger for the third time since 2005. Lack of rain in the region and volatile global food prices have made a bad situation worse. Indeed, it is the world's poor – particularly those in rural areas – that suffer the most from these combined factors.
This does not bode well for our future. By 2050, global food production will have to increase by 60 per cent to meet demand from a growing world population with changing consumption habits. To ensure food security for all, we will have to increase not just food production, but also availability, especially for those living in developing countries. That means breaking down barriers and inequalities, building capacity, and disseminating knowledge. In Africa, smallholder farmers, who provide 80 per cent of the sub-Saharan region's food, need infrastructure for agricultural development, including irrigation and roads, as well as better market organisation and access to technology.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development sees enormous potential in Africa's agricultural sector, which experienced 4.8 per cent growth in 2009, compared to 3.8 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region and only 1.4 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given that agriculture amounts to roughly 30 per cent of sub-Saharan Africa's GDP, and accounts for more than 60 per cent of employment in most African countries, the sector's development could reduce poverty in the region substantially.
Not only in Africa – in countries like Burkina Faso and Ethiopia – but also in emerging countries like China, India, and Vietnam, experience has repeatedly shown that smallholder farmers can lead agricultural growth while stimulating broader economic development. Small farmers, both women and men, are Africa's biggest agricultural investors. And agriculture-driven GDP growth is more than twice as effective in reducing poverty as growth in other sectors.
But African farmers encounter significant barriers to achieving their potential. On average, they apply less than 10kg of fertiliser per hectare, compared to 140kg in India. Furthermore, less than five per cent of agricultural land is irrigated, and improved crop varieties are rarely used.
Agricultural development efforts should, therefore, focus on promoting the growth and sustainability of smallholder farmers and small rural businesses. This requires a more supportive regulatory environment, technical assistance, as well as connections to suppliers, distributors, and finance providers.
Countries that are experiencing significant agricultural growth, such as Brazil and Thailand, have benefited from public-sector investment in research and infrastructure development. We should consider not only how to improve the ability of smallholder farmers to grow food; we also must strengthen their ability to participate in markets, while improving the way those markets function.
Moreover, sustainable investment linkages between smallholder farmers and the private sector are needed. By enabling farmers to increase their output and incomes, smallholder-inclusive private investment can bolster economic growth and food security. Finally, farmers' organisations, which are crucial intermediaries between producers and corporate investors, must be involved in the formulation of plans and policies aimed at agricultural development.
A vibrant rural sector can generate demand for locally produced goods and services, thereby stimulating sustainable employment growth in agro-processing, services, and small-scale manufacturing. Such opportunities would allow young people to thrive in their rural communities, rather than being forced to search for work in urban areas or migrating abroad.
Africa can feed itself. But that is not all: with knowledge, technology, infrastructure, and enabling policies, smallholder farmers in Africa and elsewhere can drive sustainable agricultural development, contribute to global food security, and catalyse economic growth worldwide.
Kanayo F Nwanze is the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an international financial institution and a specialised agency of the United Nations.