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July 20, 2008

Despite rhetoric, little sign of agricultural committment by African governments

Despite numerous statements by African governments on their efforts to improve the food security situation in the continent, a report commissioned by the World Bank and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) gives a different picture. Low crop production and rising prices of staple foods in Kenya and other African countries are not about to end any time soon.

The report, an outcome of months of research by some of the world’s top scientists, points a finger at the governments of sub-Saharan Africa for allowing poor land use practices that have compromised agricultural production. Practices such as deforestation and opening up of marginal lands for agriculture are cited as some of the reasons why African countries have remained net importers of food.

“Expansion of agriculture into marginal areas has resulted in nutrient and biodiversity losses, water and soil degradation and loss of pasture,” says the report, which assessed the status of the world’s agricultural knowledge, science and technology.

The research also laments that application of fertiliser, both organic and inorganic, in sub-Saharan Africa is on the decline. The finding fits well with the current situation in Kenya which has seen fertiliser application decline sharply due to prohibitive prices.

The cost of fertiliser in Kenya has risen by more than 400 per cent, a factor that has been blamed on the escalating oil prices and its by-products. Natural gas, a primary component in nitrogen fertiliser production, represents 75 to 90 per cent of the production costs.

The report entitled International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) warns that without increased application of fertiliser, many countries in sub-Saharan African will not produce larger harvests to match their increasing population growth rates.

Though agriculture accounts for an average of 32 per cent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product, the overall per capita yields have recorded a sharp decline since 1970. Crop yields are currently below the world average, leaving most of the countries net food importers.

The story is no different in fisheries, which apart from a means of livelihood for millions of inhabitants, is also an important source of foreign exchange earnings. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where per capita fish supplies are falling as a result of stagnation in capture coupled with a growing population.

Lake Victoria, which is shared by the three East African countries of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, is one of the water bodies which has seen its fish stocks decline due to pollution and over-fishing.

According to the study, fish supplies in the region declined from nine kilogrammes per person in 1973 to 6.6 kilogrammes in 1997. It is even feared that this may have declined further due to invasion of the water hyacinth.

Though it is an option to increase fish production in sub-Saharan Africa, aquaculture only contributes two per cent of the region’s total production compared to a global average of 38 per cent.

The UN and the World Bank have already warned that Kenya is one of the countries that will be hardest hit, if the spiralling food prices continue.

Cereals like maize, rice and wheat have reached the highest prices per tonne in the past five years, affecting the net importers of food negatively, which have to spend more money on the importation of the foods.

Proper environmental management, the study argues, can reduce declines in yields by maintaining the soil moisture, which affects more than 80 per cent of Africa’s agricultural land. Loss of soil moisture limits nutrient uptake, affecting the quantity and quality of the harvest.

Use of conservation methods that retain soil moisture and organic matter are still low in many African countries, explaining why soil erosion still remains a major problem in the continent.

Another concern raised by the report is the genetic erosion of some of the continent’s traditional crops. The report mentions staples like teff, yams and other traditional crops as species which are currently under threat of extinction. Though considered unimportant globally, the staples are still critical in preserving food security in the continent.

Problems bedevilling the continent aside, the report sheds a ray of hope, saying that Africa can exploit its potential in agricultural knowledge, science and technology to reduce the hunger and poverty affecting millions of its inhabitants.

One of the notable successes that can be attributed to the wise use of agricultural knowledge is the development and adoption of improved crops and livestock breeds. Others are bio-control of pests and integrated management of natural resources.

Adoption of new techniques is important given that 30 per cent of Africans are chronically hungry. There are also similar levels of malnutrition among children under five. The study says the situation is worsened by the lack of micronutrient-rich foods for improving health.

However, to improve the micro-nutrient content of foods, the region needs to make prudent use of both surface and ground water, improve on livestock breeds and stop relying solely on hardy and disease-resistant indigenous varieties with low productivity. This is important because half of the region’s internal renewable water resources are already below the minimum threshold for development, which is 500 cubic metres per person per year. Even worse, some countries have begun using the region’s large reserves of ground water without concluding any formal agreements with their neighbours. This may bring about conflicts in future, further compromising the continent’s fight against hunger.

The production of biofuels also poses a threat to food security. Though Africa has been touted as one of the continents with the potential to produce first-generation biofuels, the study cautions countries not to rush into it as it is likely to put pressure on forests and marginal lands. In fact, African governments are still divided over the issue.

According to Energy PS Patrick Nyoike, the Ministry of Energy has developed a strategy for the development of the biodiesel industry under the stewardship of the National Biofuels Committee.
Mr Nyoike says plans to initiate a Jatropha pilot project at Yatta in Kitui District of Eastern Province are ready. However, he insists that caution will be taken to ensure that food production is not compromised.

To ensure that farmers increase production, African governments must come up with incentives and reduce uncertainties and high risks associated with farming.

Though a profitable venture in the developed world, agriculture in Africa is yet to be a gainful investment, especially for small scale farmers. Investments in the sector, by African governments, are negligible despite the major role it plays in employment and food production.

As a result, the study urges African governments to help speed up regional knowledge, understanding and uptake of new agricultural technologies which, the authors maintain, are patchy.

“Education still focuses on learning facts rather than developing problem-solving skills. And the region is unique in having governments and formal education working largely in languages not spoken as first languages by most of their people,” it adds explaining other reasons for the poor agricultural production.

As such, the approach to imparting knowledge must change. Scientists have already warned of the danger of losing the rich reserves of traditional knowledge in areas such as water harvesting and animal breeding. Insufficient cross-border co-operation also limits the opportunities to share experiences.

Prof Bob Watson, the Director of IAASTD, calls for more equitable policies that do take the interests of the poor into account. “To argue, as we do, that continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet is to reiterate an old message. But it is a message that has not always had resonance in some parts of the world,” adds Prof Watson.

The study also urges developed countries to chip in through modern technologies and increasing trade and marketing opportunities.

However, the assessment laments that liberalising agricultural trade does not appear to have helped small farmers or rural communities in much of the world.

“Opening national agricultural markets to international competition before basic infrastructure and national institutions are in place can undermine agriculture,” the research says.

All told, the study says Africa’s agriculture needs urgent reforms if the trend of declining yields is to be reversed.

Daily Nation

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