Many people working to change or modernise Africa’s agriculture are frustrated by the slow pace of efficiency and productivity gains. The small farm persists and the industrial monoculture has not launched.
Fertiliser and pesticide use, scale of mechanisation and land under irrigation remain miserably low in sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to low crop and animal productivity, hundreds of millions are hungry and malnourished.
Malnutrition and hunger stalk Africa’s children, kills millions and leaves millions more cognitively impaired and unable to achieve their full potential as students and as productive citizens. But is an Asian-style Green Revolution necessarily the transformation that is needed to make Africa food sufficient? Some have suggested that such a thing as an African Green Revolution is feasible. But what really is an African Green Revolution?
The critical challenge that must be addressed with respect to Africa’s agriculture is both complex and urgent. How do we produce sufficient, nutritious and affordable food for a rapidly growing and prosperous population under conditions of water and nutrient stress, while reducing soil and environment degradation and maintaining critical biodiversity?
The Asian Green Revolution was not confronted by the challenges that Africa’s agricultural transformation must deal with. Hence, a uniquely African agricultural transformation must seek to enhance five fitness goals if it is to succeed.
First is Genetic fitness. Africa’s farming landscapes must remain a veritable storehouse of vital plant and animal biodiversity, including soil micro flora and fauna necessary to ensure stability and resilience at the farm and landscape scale. Simplified industrial monocultures must be avoided at all costs.
Second is Ecological fitness. This relates to maintaining critical ecological function at landscape scale, maintaining vegetation and animal assemblages that enable and sustain vital flows of water and nutrients.
Third is Institutional fitness. This relates to proper functioning of private and public institutions to enable sufficient provision of vital support services such as markets, financial, advisory, services, policy and regulation, infrastructure and more importantly, inter-sectoral coordination. These are necessary to de-risk the agricultural sector and attract the necessary investment.
Fourth is People fitness; a strong focus on human welfare. It must be about providing equitable access to nutritious food for Africans, not cheap unhealthy food that fuels the obesity and micronutrient deficiency epidemic, and serves a national or international agro-industrial complex. It must not be about land grabs and displacement of millions of local farmers. Smallholder framers must be integral to the transformation and any transition must be humane and socially just.
Fifth is Knowledge and Evidence fitness. The burst of big data and advances in technology must drive agricultural productivity and operational efficiency. Moreover, agricultural blockchain services can rebuild the broken food system, from the small farm household level to the supermarket shelf in the big city by leveraging network potential for distributed governance.
Africa’s agricultural transformation must not follow the flawed model of the Green Revolution, which has had disastrous consequences on soil, water and biodiversity resource, obliterated indigenous cultures and livelihoods, and stripped nutrition out of our foods.
Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University