Two hundred and twenty-seven million of the world’s chronically hungry live in Africa. This translates to approximately 30% of this group globally.
Seven out of ten people living in sub-Saharan Africa are farmers (compared to that of the United States, where the ratio is two out of a hundred.) Africa holds half of the world’s arable land. The continent is considered the “youngest” region with sixty percent of the potential workforce of around 600 million people under the age of 25.
And yet Africa has to rely on imports and food aid to feed itself. Believed to be the poorest continent in the world, it spends about $50 billion a year buying food from rich countries.
Agriculture will need to provide food, but also secure incomes. With the correct approach, agriculture can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centred rural development and protecting the environment.
Furthermore, agriculture is the single largest employer in the world, providing livelihoods for 40% of today’s global population, and it is the largest source of income and jobs for poor rural households.
Major improvements in increased yields and food production have been achieved globally. More cereals have been produced annually during the past 40 years than in any earlier period, and it is predicted that more grain will be harvested in 2017 than in any year in history. Major improvements have also been recorded in Africa.
These increases in reducing hunger are driven by improved seed varieties, new fertilisers and pesticides, improved credit- and market access, and scientific innovations.
Science can and should drive transformation of agriculture in Africa. A notable recent example includes specific nutritional challenges such as Vitamin A deficiency, the main cause of preventable childhood blindness.
Robert Mwanga was awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for inspirational work that resulted in the large-scale substitution of white sweet potato (low in Vitamin A) by a Vitamin A-rich alternative in the diets of Uganda’s rural poor. Scientific solutions for agricultural transformation need to be pursued with vigour, while recognising the fragility of African environments, its rich biodiversity and the complexity of agricultural production systems across Africa.
Investments in research and development (R&D) are vital. The Copenhagen Consensus directed by Bjorn Lomborg report that investment of an extra $88 billion in agricultural R&D over the next 15 years would increase crop yields by 0,4% each year, which could save 80 million people from hunger and prevent five million children from malnourishment.
Africa is the world’s most youthful continent. Each year, over 11 million young Africans are entering the job market — but not the workforce. The continent is facing a double employment crisis: both a lack of jobs for youth, and an increasing number of young people in need of work. Across 34 countries on the continent, people regard unemployment as the top challenge facing their nations.
Agriculture, the largest sector of employment in Africa, promises opportunities for job growth and economic prosperity. But transforming it into a modern, sustainable and profitable sector will require overcoming constraints that hamper competitiveness and growth. Youth are at the forefront of championing the innovative technological, gender-aware, and climate-smart approaches that will help grow and modernize agriculture.
The agricultural sector must employ climate-smart agricultural techniques in youth livelihood programming to be sustainable, efficient and profitable. Women in agriculture on the continent face unique barriers as a result of gender norms, both formal and informal, that creates and reinforces inequality.
Mechanisms and approaches are needed to build gender-sensitive agricultural systems in Africa. Modernising agriculture in Africa will require treating farming as a business and providing an enabling environment for youth to access modern, appropriate agricultural and digital technologies to disrupt and transform the sector.
The suitable use of such technologies will increase productivity, and access to markets and incomes of young farmers and “agripreneurs”.
The outsourcing of science for agriculture in Africa is no longer an option. African leaders – in science and government – must take responsibility for the role of science on the continent. Taking cognisance of the critical role of science and agriculture in the global sustainable development agenda, it is now the opportune time for Africa to make its mark as a player in global science.
African solidarity for science is the most significant strategy in achieving the vision, which is articulated in the Science Agenda for African Agriculture (S3A). The core of the agenda is to connect science with end users in a more effective way for the benefit of society.
This will be accomplished in several ways including:
- Identifying the broad areas of science to be developed in partnership with the main stakeholders;
- Facilitating the necessary transformation and strengthening of national science and technology institutions;
- Focus on the need for human capacity building at all levels;
- Facilitate increased funding from diversified sources to support science;
- Facilitate alignment of actions and resources to ensure value-for-money and impact;
- Facilitate effective partnerships among mandated African institutions at sub-regional/regional levels and between these actors and their external partners;
- Committing to solidarity in science by sharing information, technologies, information, facilities and staff in pursuit of common challenges and opportunities; and
- Creating favourable policy environment for science.
These actions will lead to better harmonized investments in and approaches to support agricultural science by national governments, and regional and international development agencies/partners to accelerate food production.
A more productive, efficient and competitive agriculture sector is critical to improve rural economies, where the majority of the population in Africa live. The future of Africa depends on agriculture.
Author: Professor Frans Swanepoel, Centre for Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria. Professor Swanepoel is also co-Principal Investigator of the Food Systems Programme at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security.
*This article was delivered as a keynote address at the opening of the 4th International Symposium on Postharvest Pathology, recently held at the Kruger National Park, Skukuza Camp. It was also publised by the Cape Times on 26 June 2017.