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August 05, 2008

AGRA's Kofi Annan meets green revolution stakeholders in Ghana

Mr. Kofi A Annan, the current Chair of the Board of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), heard first-hand some of the challenges facing many of the regions’ farmers as well as progress being made towards boosting production for West Africa’s small-holder farmers during a tour of Ghana.

Ghana, with a population of 21 million people, is among the first countries in sub-Saharan Africa to reach and surpass the 1996 World Food Summit goal to reduce by half the number of undernourished people by 2015. However, the current global food crisis and the rising costs of fertilizer and fuel raised concerns for Annan. Increasing prices, worsened by floods and droughts, pose an additional challenge for farmers throughout West Africa.

“The high costs of food have made everyone aware of the fact that agriculture has been ignored by governments and donors for far too long,” said Annan. “It’s good to see that this trend is reversing, but these new investments must yield results. We are encouraging everyone to work in partnership and to be as creative as possible in finding solutions.”

With offices in Nairobi and Accra, AGRA is a partnership-based organization that strives to help millions of small-scale farmers across Africa to rapidly and sustainably increase their productivity and lift them out of poverty.

West Africa is highly dependent on food imports. “We eat what we don’t produce and we produce what we don’t eat,” said Annan.

Annan visited three sites in Ghana, each highlighting innovative partnerships that could hold the key to unlocking the potential of African agriculture by linking small holder farmers to local and regional markets and training African scientists in crop breeding.

At Nsawam, Mr. Annan met with members of the Afumkrom Vegetable Growers Association, a 28-member farmer organization started in 2005. Its members grow onions, pepper, okra and garden eggs, in addition to maize and cassava on one to two acre plots. In a field meeting, several members of the farmer organization told Annan that poor access to credit and low water availability as major limitations to their farm production and income.

One association member, Mary Kabijie, grows onions on one acre of land just outside Nsawam. Adding fertilizer in the form of chicken manure as well as chemical fertilizer when her soil is weak, she’s able to harvest and sell 10 bags of onions that sell wholesale for 60 cedis (USD $57) each during harvest season. The bags sell for a slightly higher price during the lean season in November.

In Accra, Annan met with a group of PhD candidates who are part of an ambitious AGRA-funded program that aims to train 40 crop scientists at the University of Ghana-Legon over the next five years. Launched in March 2008, students at the university’s West African Center for Crop Improvement (WACCI) are working on improving and adapting indigenous crops like cowpea, rice, millet and sorghum as well as other key food staples like cassava and maize.

In the past, most African crop scientists were trained at universities in Europe or the United States, on crops that are not important—or may not even grow—in Africa. This program takes a new approach.

“We’re building the crucible for agricultural development in West Africa,” said Joe DeVries, Director of AGRA’s Program for Africa’s Seed Systems. “This program, which started in a building that was all but abandoned a year ago, is an ‘anchor investment’ for AGRA. The focus is on building human capacity in African science that will result in long term results for the region’s farmers.”

AGRA hopes that scientists trained at WACCI and its sister program in South Africa will be able to develop and release more than 1000 improved crop varieties of African food staples over the next 10 years.

Agriculture is the backbone of Ghana’s economy, accounting for about 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, employing 60-70 percent of the labor force, contributing greatly to the country’s foreign exchange. However, the rural poverty rate is above 40 percent, and many farmers are barely able to grow enough food because of degraded or weak soils, little access to water, and limited use of improved crop varieties.

In addition to its work at WACCI and MiDA, AGRA is funding three crop breeders at the Crop Research Institute in Kumasi, who are developing higher-yielding, locally adapted varieties of maize, cowpea and cassava. AGRA has also recently launched an new agro-dealer development program, which aims to increase the number of well-trained agricultural shopkeepers in Ghana.

One area that Annan stressed was the issue of providing financial support and innovative insurance measures for African farmers, most of whom are women. “Women are the backbone of agriculture in Africa. They assume the greatest risk in all human endeavors.”

“In the 60’s and 70’s, Africa was exporter of food. We can get back to that time. There are a lot of challenges but it can be done,” he added.

Annan also visited with country representatives of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a United States government organization, and the Ghanaian government’s Millennium Development Authority or MiDA. AGRA joined forces with the two organizations in June to promote dialogue in the Ghana’s seed sector and gain consensus around greater distribution and use of improved technologies and seeds in farmer’s fields.

At a meeting in Accra, AGRA and MiDA held discussions on ways to build a competitive and vibrant private seed sector in Ghana. AGRA is keen to create strong linkages between public and private actors in the seed production chain.

AGRA and MiDA are also developing plans to coordinate seed multiplication and distribution (maize, sorghum, millet, cowpea and soya), agro-dealer development and rural finance interventions in MiDA’s target districts.

“We need immediate solutions for today’s crisis but we must act within the context of a long-term concerted effort to transform smallholder agriculture and bring about food security for the most vulnerable. Africa needs a Green Revolution,” said Annan.

Accra Daily Mail

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