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AGRICULTURE-AFRICA: Questioning Old Traditions

Steve Kretzmann

CAPE TOWN, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - Inefficient production, bad infrastructure, poor access to markets, a lack of capital investment: the challenges facing smallholder farmers across Africa are many. A 'green revolution' which appears to be gaining ground in Africa seeks to change all this.

Better seeds and business knowledge: how can small-scale farmers in Africa benefit? Credit:  Manoocher Deghati/IPS

Better seeds and business knowledge: how can small-scale farmers in Africa benefit? Credit: Manoocher Deghati/IPS

Critics have expressed reservations over proposals pushing for new seed varieties and fertilisers – and simplified regulation to speed their adoption by farmers – citing the many negative effects the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s had on farmers in Asia. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) president Namanga Ngongi says hindsight will help Africa avoid the same mistakes.

Judging by the high-level status of the approximately 400 international state and private-sector delegates attending the AgriBusiness Forum 2009, holding in Somerset West some 70 kilometres from Cape Town from Jun. 14 to 17 – not to mention their willingness to part with the roughly $2,000 attendance fee – there is a high level of interest in participating in what has been tagged a ‘second green revolution’.

Answering critics

Chief among AGRA sceptics’ concerns is that the interests of agribusinesses, often represented by multi-national corporations, will trample the rights of indigenous farmers and introduce environmentally-degrading mechanised monoculture over vast tracts of land in order to export commodity crops, with a negative impact on food security in the continent. The sensitive question of the introduction of genetically-modified crops is also a concern.

But listening to what was said at the AgriBusiness Forum, it appears that while African governments are desperate to increase agricultural productivity and revenue and are opening the sector up to private investors – indeed even begging them to come in – they are also well aware of the dangers inherent in this approach.

Ugandan minister of agriculture, Bagire A Henry, literally pleaded with the agribusiness delegates to take advantage of Uganda’s extremely advantageous deals for private investors in the agricultural sector. A priority for Uganda, he said, was to create value-adding processing plants for their major export crop, coffee.

Thousands of smallholder farmers produce over one million bags of top quality, organic coffee beans for export every year, he said. But he stressed that there was a need for processing plants to be set up to increase export revenue and create more jobs for the local population.

He said investors were even welcome to come and grow the coffee themselves. However, he indicated that Uganda would not allow wholesale land purchases by foreign states or investors and local farmers would not be forced to sell.

"We don’t compel people to leave their land."

Investment would have to benefit local farmers, he said, whether it was in the farming of coffee, fruit and vegetables, rice, maize or any other emerging agricultural product.

"We say people are welcome to come establish farms – we call them nucleus farms and use them for research and development, as demonstration farms. We’re not talking about huge acres of land, we want to create a system where we leverage it in the best interests of local farmers."

It would appear many African states are wary of allowing wholesale foreign land ownership. They are seeking ways to safeguard the interests of indigenous farmers while guiding them into production for export and domestic sale, rather than simply handing the task over to large agribusinesses.

"This latest budget [introduced last week in Kampala] focused on leading farmers into commercial production. Even those farming small pieces of land, they must farm them intensively," said Henry.

He said farmers were being merged into co-operative groups to create economies of scale and his ministry was also identifying farmers who engaged in best practices in the farming of export crops, providing technical input and subsidising their farming practices.

Over the last financial year, he said, 30,000 farmers received government subsidies and a further 30,000 would receive subsidies this year.

"The US and Europe are saying ‘don’t subsidise’ and [yet] they [continue] subsidising [their own farmers]: why? The World Bank is saying ‘don’t subsidise’; we’re telling them ‘You go away, this is our country’."

Getting groups of small holder farmers who each cultivate anything from one to five hectares of land to co-operate together in the growing of commodity crops, rather than amalgamating large tracts of land under single ownership, is a model which seems be working in the African context.

It's an approach which African Connections, a limited liability company based in Ghana, has adopted with some success. African Connections is contracted by large corporations who want to invest in corporate social responsibility in the agricultural sector. They provide training and support services in order develop smallholder farmers’ ability to meet the demands of, and engage with, export markets.

One such project is the Ahafo Agribusiness Growth Initiative, run on behalf of the Newmont gold mining company, involving about 4,000 farmers.

In Ghana, said African Connections managing director Ayesha Hakeem, production is not the problem, the problem is post-harvest waste.

Hakeem said farmers were not even using all the land at their disposal, yet their post-harvest waste was between 40 and 60 percent. This is because farmers have stuck with growing their traditional crops, rather than producing to meet lucrative market demands.

So, she said, they will grow yams, for instance, but everybody has yams and nobody buys them, and they just go to waste.

African Connections’ approach was to make use of the knowledge farmers have and help them utilise it to produce crops requiring similar technology but for which there is an export demand.

"We go in and teach that farmer how to transfer the knowledge they already have to a new product that they can get money for. We first of all have identified the market, we know what that market needs. Then we teach the farmer to produce to the specification of that market and then we help them source that market."

She said instead of farmers producing a particular crop simply because their forefathers grew it, they are helping farmers to run a business.

Better business for small farmers

She said African Connections had enjoyed a lot of success getting farmers producing garden eggs (a type of aubergine) and tomatoes to switch over part of their land to farming chilli peppers.

Although the uptake was initially slow, when farmers saw their forward-thinking neighbour getting hundreds of dollars for a cash crop, they started joining in.

And, according to Hakeem, enabling them to put money in their pockets has had other social consequences such as stemming rural to urban migration as the younger generation sees there is money to be made.

She said farmers were beginning to improve their houses and send their children to school.

The point of their intervention is to ensure sustainability. Therefore farmers have to engage with buyers themselves and learn how to negotiate prices paid by buyers, as well as the prices paid for seed. Managing credit and paying off loans for seed and other inputs was also part of the training.

And because farmers still used roughly half their land to produce traditional crops, food supply and food security has not been adversely affected, she said.

Winners all around?

It’s about questioning – and breaking with – old traditions, says Ngongi. "We’re not pushing one technology. It’s about using a complement of technologies so that farmers have a choice."

He says simple, non-revolutionary innovations could be used to enable small holder farmers to create sustainable businesses.

Making sure the farmer has access to inputs; supporting the formation of an agro-dealer system made up of a multitude of small businesses set up by local inhabitants, government investment in improving infrastructure and storage facilities, and lowering the cost of credit and facilitating access to microfinance were all measures which could promote the business of agriculture without sacrificing the small farmer.

However, Ngongi admits that breaking away from long-embedded structures could result in some casualties.

"Not all farmers are going to make a wonderful profit from these new investments, but most of them will. But should we sacrifice Africa’s agriculture because there would be some who would not be able to profit?"

If African governments are willing and able to protect small farmers while leveraging the finance and technology large agribusiness possesses in order to provide both food and export revenues for their people, the green revolution could be the blessing we hope for.

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