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AFRICA: "Boost Development Through Labour-Intensive Farming"

Stephanie Nieuwoudt

CAPE TOWN, Jun 18 2009 (IPS) - Development in Africa should be boosted through labour-intensive production on small to medium-sized farms. To advance food security in Africa, governments should assist small farmers with credit lines and infrastructure while buffering them against fluctuations in world food prices.

These are among the proposals offered at the Agribusiness Forum 2009 hosted by the European Marketing Research Centre (EMRC), South Africa’s department of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa and the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations this week in Somerset West near Cape Town, South Africa.

"Two-thirds of the world population are trapped in a cruel web of circumstances that limit their rights to the necessities of life. These include decent jobs, education, healthcare, housing and, most importantly, food.

"The situation is exacerbated by the global financial slowdown," South Africa's minister of agriculture, fisheries and forestry Tina Joemat-Pettersson said in a speech read by an official at the conference.

"It is overwhelming that at the centre of this slowdown are billions of poor households, the majority in Africa and Asia, who spend a larger portion of their income on food than middle and high income households," Joemat-Pettersson pointed out.

Agricultural output per person has fallen in Africa. From 2005 to 2007 it was 15 percent lower than 1960 to 1962 levels. African countries are also increasingly dependent on agricultural imports. In South Africa, agricultural imports were worth 4.1 billion dollars in 2008 – an increase of 41 percent when compared to 2006/2007.

"There is agreement that development should, as in Asia, take the form of labour-intensive production on small to medium farms. This will generate jobs needed to reduce mass poverty and provide the food and savings that are the basis for industrialisation," stated Joemat-Pettersson.

The two-thirds of Africans whose livelihoods depend on agriculture, receive only between five and 10 percent of public resources. This effectively means that too little is spent on research and development, accessing markets, storage facilities, handling and transport, marketing and trade, she explained.

According to Dr Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), only seven countries in Africa are consistently able to spend 10 percent of their budget on agriculture. AGRA is an African organisation based in Kenya and Ghana that works towards establishing agricultural research and funding partnerships to improve the plight of farmers in Africa.

This flies in the face of the Maputo Declaration that the African Union adopted in 2003, pledging that at least 10 percent of national budgets would be devoted to agriculture.

"Economic investments in Africa are often hampered by factors like a perception that countries on the continent are politically unstable and that the financial structures are not up to standard. However, CEOs who invest in Africa often find that their returns on the continent are much higher than elsewhere," Ngongi argued.

"To ensure food security on the continent, we have to invest in capacity building and make credit available to even smallholder farmers. Governments have to invest in programmes to help farmers withstand fluctuations in both market prices and the economy.

"Governments further have to invest in infrastructure – including the building of roads and railroads. Only four percent of agricultural land in Africa is under irrigation. Education around crop improvement is essential. Last year African farmers released 65 new improved seed varieties. There is potential for further improvement."

According to AGRA, support of governments is "changing the landscape of opportunities for farmers". In Kenya government subsidies have helped 2,5 million farmers to obtain improved seeds and fertilisers and in Tanzania subsidies have helped close to 700,000 farmers.

However, research released by the independent British international relations institute Chatham House earlier this year found that although genetically modified crops may have a place, the focus should be on ecologically integrated approaches such as integrated pest management, minimum tillage, drip irrigation and integrated soil fertility management.

These approaches put power in the hands of farmers rather than seed companies.

In February this year, African agricultural ministers called for concerted efforts to improve food production on the continent. But they also acknowledged that expanded use of fertiliser and seed will not be enough. There has to be complementary investments which include the improvement of rural roads, establishing an electricity network and investing in health and education.

Chatham House also found that water scarcity is one of the major challenges facing agriculture in Africa. Half a billion people live in countries chronically short of water. By 2050 the number will rise to more than four billion. This will be due to climate change and unsustainable extraction from rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Idit Miller, managing director and vice president of EMRC, emphasised the need to invest in skills development, access to capital, information transfer, access to markets, infrastructure development, agricultural infrastructure, technology development and transfer, entrepreneurial training and development in order to scale up agricultural initiatives in Africa.

EMRC is a non-profit international association set up in Belgium and comprising a network of entrepreneurs, financiers, consultants and officials.

Miller added that there are two "other major considerations that also need to be managed in this process and those are the considerable issues of managing risk and scale of economies in order to be globally competitive".

The conference heard that public-private partnerships are essential in up-scaling agricultural initiatives in Africa. One example of how this can happen is through food corridors.

According to John Rocha, senior project manager of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) Business Foundation, developing the roads network linking two or more countries can have a number of benefits.

Private sector initiatives can lead to improved road linkages, with complementary services – such as petrol stations and shops – and the development of the electricity network.

Farmers along such corridors – who were previously isolated because of a lack of infrastructure – can benefit because the roads and shops make it easier for them to access markets, suggested Rocha. Electricity will enable them to use more advanced agricultural tools. Mineral and industrial development can also be stimulated.

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