Norman Borlaug, the father of the World Food Prize and the winner of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, had a dream. His dream was to extend the Green Revolution to Africa. His work introducing high-yielding wheat and modern seed breeding started in Mexico and then spread to Asia.
Borlaug knew that his biggest challenge lay ahead, in Africa, as the structure of African agriculture was unique and would require a different approach. In 2007, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Africa’s political commitment to agriculture and rural development has been much weaker than what existed in Asia,” and there had to be much more research and development.
Things have changed since that time, the pace is quickening and a food-secure Africa is within reach.
Last month, some 2,000 delegates convened at the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya, with one single goal in mind: to scale up African agriculture. The African Green Revolution Forum included heads of state (and former heads of state), leaders of the African Union, the business community and civil-society all seeking to grow the agriculture economy and fundamentally change the human condition.
The focus of the forum, which was coordinated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) along with many partners, was to seize the moment by making the political, policy and financial investments needed to achieve the ambitious goals laid out by African heads of state through the African Union and its African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP).
The opening speaker at the forum was Julie Borlaug, Borlaug’s granddaughter, who presented Borlaug’s vision for Africa. President Paul Kagame of Rwanda captured the consensus of the meeting: “Agriculture is not just one sector of the economy amongst others — it’s the backbone of the economy.” The president of AGRA, Agnes Kalibata, was the minister of agriculture in Rwanda before she moved to the helm of AGRA.
The African Union now urges all 54 African countries to devote at least 10 percent of their budgets to agriculture. The countries that were the first to meet the goal in terms of budget allocation — including Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Burkina Faso — have been making the most progress.
In Burkina Faso, for example, maize production increased from 1.5 tons per hectare (2.5 acres) to 5 tons per hectare with the introduction of new varieties of hybrid seeds. In all, some 555 new certified varieties of hybrid seeds have been released for a wide variety of crops.
At every level of education, capacity has been increased. Markets are being established and expanded. Country governments are establishing policies that are business friendly. Akin Adesina, the new president of the African Development Bank, has made agriculture development a top priority. But progress across the continent is still quite inconsistent.
The forum concluded with the minister of agriculture in Kenya, Willy Brett, quoting Norman Borlaug and his plea to “take it to the farmers.” But that is easier said than done in Africa.
Privately owned agro-dealers are playing an important role. They are selling small bags of seeds and inputs to farmers and, on occasion, combining it with extension services. There are some 17,000 certified agro-dealers, but that number needs to increase by hundreds of thousands to reach the majority of smallholder farmers.
Then it must be combined with a dose of education through public-private cooperation. Once a farmer starts using certified, improved seeds (as opposed to those seeds left over from last year) coupled with a micro-dose of fertilizer and some education, the yields increase dramatically.
The agro-dealers may also be in the best position to bring mechanization to smallholder farmers. Individual farmers don’t have the capital or the need for a full-time tractor. The local agro-dealer could purchase the tractor and make it available to his customers.
AGRA for its part will be using a new integrated approach at the farmer level, the national level and the system level. Further, AGRA will be implementing this program, on the ground, establishing offices in 11 countries to reach the maximum number of farmers.
This is not of course a comprehensive list of what is needed. Irrigation, credit issues, crop insurance and other components of a vibrant farm economy will have to be addressed. “The goal,” as outlined by President Kenyatta of Kenya “is for smallholder farmers to become profitable businesses so they can improve the quality of life for their families.”
AGRA has become the sparkplug pulling all this together. They bridge the private and public sectors as well as the universities, the civil society and the growing list of funders around the world. Based on the progress of the last 10 years, and the momentum coming out of the forum, there are very high expectations for scaling up the African green revolution during the next 10 years and fulfilling Borlaug’s dream.