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Food and Agriculture

Smallholder Farmers Are Key to CGIAR Response to Hunger Crisis

Dr Ismahane Elouafi looks at cassava plantlets “grown in boxes” in a mass propagation facility in IITA, Ibadan. Credit: IITA

Dr Ismahane Elouafi looks at cassava plantlets “grown in boxes” in a mass propagation facility in IITA, Ibadan. Credit: IITA

BANGKOK , Feb 19 2024 (IPS) - Dr Ismahane Elouafi has her work cut out. As the new executive managing director of CGIAR, a global network of agricultural research centers, her mandate, simply put, is to tackle the world’s most severe hunger crisis in modern history.

And it is in Africa that the former Chief Scientist of FAO with a PhD in durum wheat genetics faces her greatest challenges, both in terms of developing science-based innovations and technologies and lobbying governments to adopt responsible policies.

Ten years ago, an African Union summit of heads of state and government signed the Malabo Declaration, committing to end hunger in Africa by 2025, to allocate at least 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture and to double productivity levels. Those goals are far from being reached. 

The FAO’s 2023 report on state of global food security estimates that between 691 and 783 million people in the world faced hunger in 2022, as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment, with numbers rising in Western Asia, the Caribbean, and all sub-regions of Africa.

“Most countries in Africa are much below that (budget) target of 10 percent,” Elouafi told IPS in an interview from Nigeria after visiting the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), part of the CGIAR network. Only Ethiopia and Morocco were close to that spending target, she noted, while African countries were also failing to meet goals of allocating three percent of spending on science and innovation.

CGIAR's executive managing director Ismahane Elouafi.

CGIAR’s executive managing director Ismahane Elouafi.

The severely worsening climate crisis, the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and soaring costs of grain and fertilizer following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago have all contributed to derailing grand pledges made in Malabo. But as a recent report by Oxfam noted, nearly three-quarters of African governments have cut instead of increased their agricultural budgets since 2019 while spending almost twice as much on arms.

“CGIAR is a science-based organisation, and our bread and butter is science, mostly applied science,” Elouafi replies when asked if much of her time will be spent knocking on the doors of heads of governments over their policy choices. But, she adds, many solutions are not “technical” as such and involve policies in investment, education, women’s rights, and capacity building.

“We need African countries to invest in solutions that are better fit for Africa,” she says. She highlights how the lack of food processing industries means that crops are exported and then re-imported, crossing multiple borders and contributing to the continent’s trade deficit in food of over $40 billion a year.

Durum wheat—the subject of her doctorate—may fetch some USD 300 a tonne on the international market, but processed as pasta, it is valued 10 times as much. The added value of processed quinoa is even more.

Much of the work on developing wheat—a significant component of Africa’s annual food import bill of over USD 80 billion—has been achieved under TAAT (Transformation of African Agricultural Technologies), a multi-CGIAR center initiative funded by the African Development Bank (AfDB) and led by IITA.

Delivering that knowledge to farmers and making an impact through innovative platforms is a vital element of CGIAR’s work, with TAAT a good example of a model that Elouafi is considering for adoption by CGIAR.

Dr Ismahane Elouafi looks at disease-free cassava and banana plants at the Virology Lab in IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria. Credit: IITA

Dr Ismahane Elouafi looks at disease-free cassava and banana plants at the Virology Lab in IITA, Ibadan, Nigeria. Credit: IITA

In Nigeria, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria and IITA’s International Goodwill Ambassador, welcomed  Elouafi on her visit, during which they discussed IITA’s strategic initiatives for stakeholder engagement aimed at combating food insecurity at both national and African levels.

Recognizing IITA’s extensive contributions to improving Nigeria’s food systems, including its network of stations across Africa, Obasanjo noted gaps in research dissemination and agricultural extension services, suggesting an approach akin to the Zero Hunger Program with IITA in which he was involved.

Elouafi proposed a continental summit on food security to synergize efforts between researchers and scientists, and also discussed the possibility of working with development banks to establish an endowment fund for agriculture.

Thanking Nigeria for hosting and supporting IITA, Elouafi said she was deeply impressed by the quality and strategic significance of IITA’s role in Africa and the commitment of its team under Director General Dr Simeon Ehui, who is also CGIAR’s Africa regional director.

“Leadership at a country level is very important,” she says, singling out Ethiopia, which has made substantial progress in wheat production using the expertise of CIMMYT and ICARDA, two of CGIAR’s network of 15 global research centers.

Food has become a major part of the world’s climate agenda, with every degree in temperature rise significantly increasing the number of people going hungry, Elouafi says, noting that 500 million small-scale farmers, who provide a third of the world’s food, live in regions disproportionately affected by climate change.

Africa’s rapid population growth means the continent must produce more food in terms of quantity and quality of nutrition. “This is where CGIAR has a huge role to play, because to produce more food on the continent, we need to adopt new technologies and innovation,” she says. This is not just about improved crop genetics but also generating policies that, for example, provide more jobs and opportunities for African youth in agribusiness, she adds.

But Africa also needs to promote crop diversification, says Elouafi, who is a champion of neglected or “forgotten” crops like fonio, a climate-resilient grain and formerly a staple food across West Africa, as well as cassava and a wider range of vegetables.

Asked about the long-running debate that amounts to a battle for attention between large-scale industrialised agriculture and the needs of smallholders, Elouafi first points out that more than 80 percent of food in sub-Saharan Africa is produced by smallholder farmers.

“CGIAR is working tremendously with smallholder farmers. We know that there will always be many farmers in Africa who are smallholders and that is where we need to adopt our technologies and innovation.”

But while the debate often focuses on the extremes of small and large industrialized farms, she says “the reality is in between,” as demonstrated by successful examples of models like cooperatives and aggregations of smallholder farmers. She points again to Ethiopia, where the irrigated wheat initiative brought together smallholders with areas ranging from 10 hectares to 5,000.

“We need to move away from both extremes and look for solutions,” she said, citing Asia’s success in developing small-scale mechanisation for fishing communities, herders, and smallholders.

“But I want to stress that in CGIAR and across our centers in Africa, we are doing a lot of work on the technical side and on the social and policy side to help smallholder farmers,” she says.

Elouafi also thinks of a future where “ideally” policies are adopted so that these smallholders will be paid not just for their farm products but also for the “ecosystems services” that they are performing in terms of carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and conservation.

For the moment, the methodologies to monitor and monetise these processes are lacking, she says.

“But in the ideal world going forward, we could eventually both monitor the carbon sequestration, the ecosystem services, and the food production and get the farmers, particularly the small-scale farmers, to be paid for both of them.”

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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