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February 16, 2019

Learn from six decades of failure to transform agriculture


A legion of organisations and experts advise African farmers and governments on how to make agriculture more productive and profitable. But after nearly six decades of public, private and donor investments, African farms are the least productive and African farmers are among the poorest people on the planet.

According to Harvard’s Calestous Juma, Africa imports nearly 83 per cent of its food. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, spends about $5 billion (Sh506 billion) on food imports annually. In 2014, Africa spent over $35 billion (Sh3.5 trillion) on importing food. Moreover, Africa is also the largest recipient of food aid.

Africa is a hungry continent. In this country for instance, farmers, producers of food, can hardly afford two nutritious meals a day. Children who are born in rural farm households are often hungry, malnourished and stunted. It is estimated that 40 per cent of all children in sub-Saharan Africa are stunted from malnutrition, which hampers physical and cognitive development and deepens inter-generational poverty.

Low farm productivity and the hunger associated with it have catastrophic economic and social consequences. For example, it is estimated that undernutrition causes 45 per cent of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually. Moreover, a study by the United Nations Economic Commission and World Food Programme estimates that Uganda loses about 5.6 per cent of its GDP because of malnutrition.

The story of Africa’s chronic hunger and underperforming agricultural sector has existed side by side with the Africa Rising narrative over the past two decades. It is a tale of two continents; bustling cities with a surging middle class side by side with indelible hunger and debilitating malnutrition. Who really cares?

There is no shortage of honest, genuine do-gooders on the continent. Out of pity and the kindness of their hearts they have grappled with Africa’s hunger crises for nearly a century. They come with the best ideas, solutions that have worked in their countries and other continents. Six decades after the Green Revolution transformed the Asian continent African farmers still cannot produce enough to food to feed their families.

Interventions by a motley crowd of experts and development agencies have left mountains of failure but we have failed to get even a grain of wisdom. In many cases we have repeated the same old failed, idiotic interventions and expected different results.

Honestly, I am baffled that in the 21st century, with everything we know about biodiversity, environmental services and climate change, we still have this crazy illusion that somehow a green revolution is a plausible formula for agricultural transformation in Africa.

To be fair, some things have worked and there are some bright spots. For example, why is the Kenya Tea Development Authority so successful when the coffee and pyrethrum sector collapsed? Why is a small dairy in peri-urban Nairobi so successful? Why are the small farms in the rolling slopes of Kisii more productive than the sprawling vast plains of Homa Bay?

Africa’s agriculture and food potential is truly exceptional. Can we learn from the failures of the past six decades?

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