Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Africa Poised for Major Expansion of Food Production

Although Challenges Remain, Growing Evidence Supports Need for Investments in Integrated Approaches to Bring Fruits of Science to Farmers in the Field

“Agriculture in Africa is turning around. But if we want to put the days of stagnation firmly behind us, we need to foster a new era of collaboration that links evidence-based solutions being developed by researchers to public and private sector investments. None of us can work in isolation,” said Dr. Monty Jones, Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) at 5th Agriculture Science Week and FARA General Assembly in Ouagadougou.

“The consensus coalescing around an integrated approach to agricultural development will allow Africa to transition from being a perennial ‘laggard’ in food production to a ‘lion’ on the move,” Jones added.

The gathering featured five days of intensive exchanges on how to increase investments in African agriculture in the wake of the financial crisis and priorities for mitigating the risks posed by globalization and climate change.

The FARA General Assembly occurred amidst growing interest from both inside and outside of Africa on how to realize the continent’s untapped agricultural potential. A report released earlier this month from McKinsey & Company predicts Africa’s agriculture sector could rapidly advance from generating US $280 billion a year today in revenue to $500 billion by 2020 to as much as $880 billion by 2030. According to some estimates, Africa has 60 percent of the world’s remaining arable land and an unmatched bounty of natural resources and plant and animal biodiversity.

Jones and others at the General Assembly acknowledged that significant challenges remain in addressing chronic food problems, as witnessed by the food shortages now affecting Niger and other countries of the Sahel region. But they insisted the overall trends across Africa are positive and noted that several African nations are on track to reach the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting poverty in half by 2015.

For example, there were discussions at the conference of projects underway in northern Nigeria, Mozambique, southern Niger, and Uganda that have brought together research institutes, extension agents, and farmers’ organizations to introduce improved crop varieties of staples. In Uganda, farmers are growing NERICA rice varieties in upland areas that had never produced rice before. Uganda is now a net-exporter of rice.

“We are seeing in these and many other initiatives underway today how the process of integrating agriculture research for development (AR4D) can rapidly deliver innovation,” said Denis Kyetere, Director General, National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO), Uganda, and Chairman of FARA’s Executive Board.

Among the many themes that emerged during the week was the need for more direct links between the researchers who are developing improved seeds and new farming techniques for Africa’s challenging, rain-fed conditions and the farmers who must implement them. Farmer groups in particular made it clear that they must have a voice in establishing research priorities.

“Smallholder farmers in Africa are researchers are in their own right,” Abiel Banda, Vice President of the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions (SACAU). “Where there is an identification of indigenous technology by farmers, researchers must recognize it. They need us as much as we need them.”

This theme was echoed by Hon. Mr. Venâncio Simão Massingue, Mozambique’s Minister of Science and Technology. He described the creation in “virtual knowledge centers” that link the country’s farm scientists to rural communities and direct researchers to identify problems and create solutions.

“When my scientists go into the field, I ask them not to even take bottled water and mosquito repellents. They need to understand the conditions in the community if they are going to understand their problems,” he said.

The FARA meeting also revealed a deepening commitment from governments to pursuing agriculture-driven economic growth.

Ministers from several African countries were on hand to announce their commitment the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). There are now 19 countries in Africa that through CAADP have adopted a common approach to agriculture development that includes a commitment to increasing agriculture production by 6 percent each year and allocating 10 percent of government budgets to the farm sector. Burkina Faso signed the CAADP compact on the final day of the General Assembly.

Harvard University’s Calestous Juma said effectively using government funds and policies to improve agriculture means decision makers must pay greater attention to emerging technology trends.

“Rapid scientific advancement and constant changes in the global knowledge ecology require African leaders at all levels to start creating institutions for scientific advice and analysis,” he said. “Agricultural innovation could be the first beneficiary of informed advice from such bodies.”

But it was widely noted at the conference that government action alone is insufficient.

“Despite the progress we have achieved in strengthening funding for the agriculture sector, our investment needs remain huge and efforts are needed to find more support,” said Hon. Dr. Laurent Sedogo, Burkina Faso’s Minister’s of Agriculture, Water Resources and Fisheries.

In a discussion on financing, Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), said that farmers needed more consistent access to capital to increase adoption of new technologies. He pointed out that “agriculture contributes 40 percent of GDP and employs 70 percent of the labor force in Africa but it receives only 2 percent of commercial bank loans.”

AGRA’s efforts to use credit guarantees to facilitate farmer financing in Tanzania, Mozambique, Ghana, and Kenya have “unlocked” $160 million for smallholder farmers, local agro-dealers and others across the agriculture value chain, according to Ngongi.

Other issues highlighted at the conference included:

ν Efforts underway across the continent to balance food production needs with the potential for biofuels to provide both income and energy for agriculture enterprises.
ν The growing role of the BRIC countries--Brazil, India and China--in financing agriculture and other development projects in Africa.
ν Issues related to the use of biotechnology on Africa farms, including presentations on a program that is developing transgenic high-yield and drought-tolerant corn.
ν The importance of Africa’s plant and livestock biodiversity to addressing the challenges of food production, which included warnings that disease and drought resistant breeds that have evolved over thousands of years in Africa are at risk of being lost to various pressures, including cross-breeding with more productive but less resilient European and North American cattle.

“If countries can maintain the positive momentum, Africa will soon be in a position of unprecedented strength,” said Monty Jones. “The challenge we put to our FARA members is to develop the relationships between researchers and farmers, between the public and the private sector, to create a platform for progress.”

Jones added, “The only way for Africa to move forward is from a position of strength. Ultimately, the solution to our food challenges will come not from charity, but from investment.”

Photo credit: Jeff Haskins

Getting a Return on the FARA Investment: Bringing Back Impacts from the GA

David Howlett of the Africa College at Leeds University offered a departing challenge in the form of a question to his colleagues as work was wrapping up on this FARA General Assembly.

“What,” he asked, “will you do differently next week when you return to your offices? Because if we do not have new impacts to report at the next meeting, and only continue to talk about strategies and plans, then we will have collectively failed.”

He said that “writing papers for high level journals” is an excellent idea, but will not necessarily produce results in terms of training of tomorrow’s researchers and others, influencing policy, increasing public understanding, taking millions out of poverty, and reducing the impact of agriculture on the environment.

“We need to identify those who may benefit from or make use of our research, how they will benefit, and we need to devote time and money to communications,” he said.

The danger, he said, is that in an effort to achieve greater impact researchers will look for easy endeavors that produce minor results.

“We need to take some risks to continue to invest in blue skies research that may take time to produce results but has the potential to impact on a large-scale,” he said. “And importantly, we need to learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes; we are very bad at sharing our failures.”

In a similar vein, Michael Hailu, director of the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (known by its Dutch acronym CTA), warned of weak links between research and policy and skepticism among policy makers about the value of research.

“We have to be smart in the research community and feed into the policy process,” he said.

Hailu said scientists are very good at communicating amongst themselves but lack training in communicating to others. He said dealing with this weakness will be challenging.

“You must never underestimate the time and resources required to communicate effectively,” he said.

Image source: Ideas Project

Friday, July 23, 2010

Cell Phones, Flowers and the Blossoming of African Innovation

Prof. Calestous Juma is an internationally-recognized authority on the role of innovation in economic development. He is Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He also leads the University’s Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Prof Juma was also the first science reporter for the Kenyan newspaper, Daily Nation, which just celebrated it’s 50th anniversary.

Prof. Juma sat down with Zimbabwean journalist, Busani Bafana, on the sidelines FARAweek.

What is the state of innovation in Africa?

Prof. Juma: Africa is innovating. People just aren’t looking hard enough for the signs of innovation. Look at the use of the mobile telephone. Africans have created a whole new industry. It is the first place in the world where mobile phones have been used to transmit money and that has come out of Africa. That is a good example where Africa is innovating and we have seen African universities innovating, for example, the University of Stellenbosch is the first university in the developing world to develop and launch a satellite.

Do you see the same spirit of innovation in the agricultural sector?

Juma: We need to do more. We have gone through a series of famines. We have gone through a long period where we have relied on donors. Oddly enough, this was also a time when donors were not keen to fund agriculture research. Now, Africans and our governments are focusing on agriculture. I expect that we will see more African investment in our farm production. The case of Malawi is a good example of what a country can do very quickly with the right policies and investments.

Is public funding for innovation enough?

Juma: We can do more as the private sector grows. African economies are recovering. Look at the wealth being generated by telecommunications revolution. This wealth is beginning to fund research and build up university systems in places like Egypt and Ghana. This may happen in Kenya as well. The next step is leveraging resources from the public and private sector to contribute to research and innovation.

What are some success stories in African agricultural innovation?

Juma: NERICA is a powerful example. The concept of taking African rice and cross breeding it with Asian rice to create a new rice adapted to African conditions. This is a good example of getting new players and partnerships to foster innovation. In recent years, Kenya has emerged as one the world’s leading exporters of flowers. This is again another example of innovation and creative thinking. Kenyan producers identified a productive area for horticultural production near the airport, then connected with the airlines flying in and out of Nairobi as a way of tap into a very lucrative global flower market.

Report: Bioenergy Production Can Expand Across Africa Providing Income and Energy to Farmers without Displacing Food

Crops can be produced for bioenergy on a significant scale in west, eastern and southern Africa without doing damage to food production or natural habitats, according to a report produced by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Imperial College London, and CAMCO International. The study was released today at the 5th African Agriculture Science Week in Burkina Faso.

“If approached with the proper policies and processes and with the inclusion of all the various stakeholders, bioenergy is not only compatible with food production; it can also greatly benefit agriculture in Africa,” said Dr. Rocio Diaz-Chavez, the report’s lead author and Research Fellow at Imperial College London. “Bioenergy production can bring investments in land, infrastructure, and human resources that could help unlock Africa’s latent potential and positively increase food production.”

The conclusions of the report, Mapping Food and Bioenergy in Africa, were drawn from a review of existing research and case studies of biofuel production and policy in six countries: Senegal, Mali, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique. Among the report’s findings is that there is enough land available to significantly increase the cultivation of crops, such as sugar cane, sorghum, and jatropha for biofuels without diminishing food production.

The case studies found that interest is growing across Africa in bioenergy to address both income and energy needs. For example, ethanol can be blended with fossil fuels to reduce dependence on expensive fuel imports that are a major drag on economic development. Ethanol also can be used in cooking stoves, reducing dependence on unhealthy and environmentally destructive charcoal and wood. In addition, using biodiesel to power electrical generators is of keen interest in many areas, given the challenges facing the power grid across Africa.

But as global demand escalates for biodiesel and ethanol, a key concern has emerged that a rush to expand production in Africa, particularly for export, could usurp land and resources needed food crops. But Diaz-Chavez said evidence uncovered in the FARA report finds “food versus bioenergy” should not be the choice, and that the more relevant discussion today is how to properly integrate bioenergy into agriculture production systems in different regions of Africa.

For example, the report concludes that sugar cane production for biofuels could be doubled in many areas “without reducing food production or destroying valuable habitats.” Furthermore, Diaz-Chavez said it’s clear that many African countries are sensitive to potential conflicts with food production and are pursuing policies that address this concern.

“There have been individual instances where bioenergy production has produced negative impacts, but that does not mean it is not possible to develop this sector in a sustainable manner,” she said.

For example, Mozambique has adopted a policy that designates only sugar cane and sweet sorghum for ethanol and jatropha and coconut for biodiesel. In South Africa, Parliament has decreed that maize can no longer be used for biofuel. Mali does not allow food crops to be used for biofuel production. Also, the report finds programs in Mali to increase production of jatropha, a shrub that produces seeds that can be converted into fuel, are benefiting local smallholder farmers “without compromising food production.”

The analysis reveals that the challenge today is not so much whether bioenergy production can co-exist with food production but rather how it can be scaled-up to help African countries realize their potential.

“There are the same challenges you see for any crops, which is if you don’t have adequate resources, you cannot boost production,” she said. For example, the report concludes that in the less developed countries of Africa, “it is possible to triple yields by using improved management practices, potentially freeing up more land for bioenergy production.”

Part of the study was devoted to identifying or “mapping” the wide array of groups in Africa who are getting involved in various aspects of bioenergy production. They include farmers groups, NGOs, industry and, in governments, agriculture, transport, energy, and environment ministries and agencies.

“We know there is intense interest in many sectors, but the problem is they are not necessarily communicating with one another,” said Dr. Monty Jones, Executive Director of FARA. “It is a situation that offers an opportunity for FARA, as an organization with partners in the public and private sector across the region, to provide a forum that brings all of these different interests together to form a cohesive and inclusive approach to bioenergy production.”

At a discussion of the report during the Science Week, a key issue that emerged was that bioenergy issues must be part of a broader conversation about how to meet the energy needs of African farmers.

“Energy is the key to modernizing agriculture in Africa,” said Dr. Ibrahim Togola, who heads an agriculture industry development group in Mail and is a professor at Mali’s Rural Polytechnical Institute. “We need to make our politicians understand that we will never have an agriculture revolution in Africa without having access to modern energy services,” he said.

For a copy of the report, please visit here.

AGRA’s Namanga Ngongi Keeps Score

As head of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Dr. Namanga Ngongi is keenly aware of the challenges facing African agriculture in multiple areas, such as getting access to improved seeds and fertilizers and building markets for African agricultural products. But one of the most glaring gaps highlighted in his speech at the opening session of the FARA General Assembly is in the area of finance.

“The agriculture sector has great difficulties getting finance,” he said. “Agriculture contributes 40 percent of GDP and 70 percent of the labor force in Africa is employed in agriculture, but it received only two percent of commercial bank loans.

“We should try by all means to increase farmer access to credits,” he added.

Ngongi noted that AGRA has “pioneered” new programs that “use credit guarantees to leverage idle capital in Africa’s banks.”

For example, in Tanzania, US $2.1 million in credit guarantees unlocked US $10 million in credit for smallholder farmers and agro-dealers. Combined with similar efforts in Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, credit guarantees have generated US $160 million for farmers and other across the value chain.

“These financial schemes have not only provided access to credit but have done so with more flexible conditions and at lower interest rates,” he said.

Shining a little light on African agriculture

By Susanna Thorp, WRENmedia

“African scientists are publishing more than they used to but they are not doing justice to the science they produce,” says Stephen Rudgard of FAO. “Most outputs of agricultural research are not truly visible. We have to realise this is a major challenge.”

Although science in Africa is becoming more accessible, there is still a long way to go, he said in the opening presentation for Enhancing the accessibility of research outputs through more coherent knowledge centres and networks. Rudgard continued, “There are some serious gaps in inter-regional collaboration with very few open access repositories in Africa. It is no means dark but there could be more progress. Even access to information from international centres varies considerably and is not always that strong.”

“Capacity building and communication can do much for an agricultural research organisation,” emphasised Dr A. B. Salifu, director-general of CSIR in Ghana. He highlighted how successful this had been when making a call for research proposals. After capacity building was offered in proposal writing, three times as many projects were selected for funding. In addition, he said, most researchers had increased confidence to submit articles to the national press.

“In Africa, our greatest problem has always been capacity,” said Salifu. “For too long we have been reactive rather than proactive. This has to change.” To provide better visibility of CSIR’s research in the media he stated that they had also worked with selected media houses to train five science journalists to work with. In addition, an ICT/communications manual had been launched for the benefit of CSIR researchers.

Break out sessions to discuss the key incentives and benefits for individual researchers of making research outputs truly accessible identified personal recognition for ones efforts, career progression, getting research into use, more networking opportunities as well as access to funding resources and contribution to science and development.

“The issues highlighted by the group affect how research is shared,” stated Rudgard as he introduced the global partnership CIARD initiative, which was launched in 2008 to provide improved coherence for information in ARD. [Achievements during the last two years include development of a manifesto, a health checklist for institutions to see where they stand in terms of information sharing, pathways on how the checklist can be reached and, through, GFAR, a registry of more than 100 agricultural information services.]

“Since the launch of CIARD, we have learnt that we need to diversify the ways in which we make information accessible,” he continued. “There are many information knowledge management tools and it is not always clear which ones to use. Institutions and individuals need guidance and training. There is no one size fits all. We have to tailor solutions according to identified needs and we must co-ordinate our efforts.”

Complementing and adding value to others is the aim of FARA’s multi-partner RAILS (Regional Agricultural Information and Learning System) initiative, introduced to the delegates by Dady Demby of FARA. The approach focuses on ‘bringing people together in promoting effective use of ICT tools through relevant processes for content development and knowledge sharing.’

“Through this initiative we are contributing to improving access to knowledge on African ARD, providing information in the right format for the right audience,” said Demby. “Through national learning teams, composed of a variety of stakeholders, working together as intermediaries, we have been able to significantly increase access to information and knowledge sharing.”

Further information on RAILS and CIARD can be accessed at:
www.ciard.net and www.erails.net

From Long-Horns to Short-Horns, a Threat to Africa’s Livestock Diversity

In West and Central Africa there are breeds known as humpless longhorn and shorthorn cattle that have been in the region for thousands of years. During this time they have evolved ways to survive many diseases, including trypanosomiasis, which each year kills an estimated three to seven million cattle.

Moreover, these hardy animals have the ability to withstand harsh climates. Despite their drawbacks—the shorthorn and longhorn breeds are not as productive as their European counterparts—their loss would be a major blow to the future of African livestock productivity. But they are among a wide variety of indigenous African livestock whose valuable genetic diversity is at risk of being lost.

“We have seen in the short-horn humpless breeds native to West and Central African indiscriminate slaughter and an inattention to careful breeding that has put them on a path to extinction,” said said Abdou Fall, leader of the livestock diversity project for West Africa at the International Livestock Research Institute.

Fall and other ILRI experts were at FARA’s 5th Annual Science Week where they were participating in discussions focused on the risks and opportunities relevant to Africa’s agricultural biodiversity.

“We must at the very least preserve these breeds either on the farm or in livestock genebanks because their genetic traits could be decisive in the fight against trypanosomiasis, while their hardiness could be enormously valuable to farmers trying to adapt to climate change,” he said.

Other African cattle breeds at risk include the Kuri cattle of southern Chad and northeastern Nigeria. The large bulbous-horned Kuri, in addition to being unfazed by insect bites, are excellent swimmers, having evolved in the Lake Chad region, and are ideally suited to wet conditions in very hot climates.

“What we see too often is an effort to improve livestock productivity on African farms by supplanting indigenous breeds with imported animals that over the long-term will prove a poor match for local conditions and require a level of attention that is simply too costly for most smallholder farmers,” said Carlos Seré, ILRI’s Director General. “What marginalized livestock-keeping communities need are investments in genetics and genomics that allow them to boost productivity with their African animals, which are best suited to their environments.”