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Africa needs to feed herself first, then the world

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Meeting participants

This guest post by Adetola Okunlola first appeared on the PLAAS blog.

Are Africa’s farmers ageing and young people turning their backs on agriculture? Can large-scale land deals and industrial farming address food security in Africa? How can smallholder farmers be supported to build food security for their own families, communities and countries? These were among the debates that took place at the Society for International Development’s (SID) ‘Africa Speaker Dialogue Series’ on the theme of ‘Rethinking Food Security in Africa: New Paradigms, New Approaches’, which was held at the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi on 12-13 June 2013. Present were key African thinkers from a variety of backgrounds from academics to government officials, farmers to activists, and, hearteningly, a large contingent of young people representing different forums. The Africa Speaker Dialogue Series aims to ‘promote reflection and conversation’ around key issues on the African continent.

The symposium consisted of five topics – Ideology, Technology, the African Farmer, Gender and Youth – with a speaker and respondents for each theme. From the outset, it became apparent that speakers, respondents and the audience were agreed on the need to give further attention to the role of women in agriculture, African identity and freedom from forms of dependence created by trade, economic and aid relationships.

Why is Africa food insecure?

The symposium was opened by Ali Hersi of SID East Africa, who introduced the opening round table discussion held by Dr Abdirizak Nunow (University of Eldoret and Future Agricultures), MagodeIkuya (Molo Integrated Agro-Farming Initiative Uganda), Gershon Nzuva (Past Chairman Central Agricultural Board) and Adetola Okunlola (Institute of Poverty, Land & Agrarian Studies). The discussants were challenged by Mr. Hersi to answer the question: ‘Why Africa is still food insecure even though she has enough people and resources to feed herself?’ A number of factors were mentioned including:

  • Unequal global trade regulations,
  • Poor infrastructure and linkages, resulting in food being available but not easily distributable to the masses,
  • A lack of youth interest in farming, partly due to the ‘Westernisation’ of African youth, resulting in the notion that farming is for those who are not successful, and
  • A lack of real focus by governments on ensuring food security.

The panel suggested that Africa needs to prioritise food security in a consistent manner – rather than focusing on short-term political gains and re-election. This should be done through including women and youth in agriculture and focusing on producing food crops for household consumption and local markets, rather than export crops.

Ideology

The speakers and respondents on the theme of ‘Ideology’ were Situma Mwichabe (SID), Dr Alex Awiti (Director of the East African Institute of the Agha Khan University) and Oby Obyerodhianbo (Strategic communications Advisor at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health, PATH), who spoke on ideologies around and of African farmers.

They exasperatedly reiterated the need for Africans to not be reliant on foreign aid, ideas and advice. It was strongly felt that the African continent was still held by forces of neo-colonialism in the guise of ‘technical advisors’ and World Bank/IMF financiers. One asked, ‘Who shall be the ones to change the African people’s ideology?’ as it was felt that those in power in African governments had no serious aspirations to address such issues. It was also noted that African farmers had ‘given up’ on dreams of success and were happy to partake in projects to save them from starvation but still keep them on the brink of poverty. The panel concluded that this mindset must be changed and African farmers must understand that dependence on projects and aid will never change lives… social organization and mobilization is what is needed to facilitate economic growth.

Technology

The ‘Technology’ speaker was Dr Nicholas Ozor (African Centre for Technology and Policy studies). Respondents Dr Paul Seward (Director Farm Inputs Promotion Africa) and Dr Hannington Odame (Director Center for African Bio-Entrepreneurship and Future Agricultures East Africa hub coordinator) discussed the acquisition of technology by African small-scale farmers. The roles of different types of technology were discussed such as mechanization, biological and indigenous technology. It was felt that many farmers were crop loyal and preferred crops they had always grown over other higher yield varietals. Dr Seward demonstrated the effectiveness of a ‘farm-inputs’ model in which smallholders are trained how to use appropriate amounts of inputs such as fertilizer and seeds, through simple methods such as a seed planting string which are low in cost and highly effective.

The African Farmer: agency and adaptation

‘The African Farmer’ session was presented by Dr Abdullahi Khalif (Country representative for FEWSNET Somalia) with responses by Dr Julius Gatune (African Center for Economic Transformation) and Adetola Okunlola (PLAAS). The discussion centred on African farmers’ agency and ability to adapt in order to access rapidly changing and complex global value chains. A warning was given against notions of an ‘African Farmer’; farmers are a highly heterogeneous group, both across the continent and within specific geographical areas. One of the reasons for so many years of development failure has been due to ‘one size fits all’ approaches, which do not recognise the differences between farmers. It was also noted that there are other ways to improve food security and economic success for small-scale farmers than including them in high-value export value chains. A further understanding and support of informal markets is also a viable and favourable option. The ‘African Farmer’ discussants echoed some of the points made within the ideology discussion, however, it was felt that hope does lie with African small-scale producers, many of whom are not plagued by dependency, but are rather economic actors producing despite constraints and utilising all advantages given to them, whether by NGOs, the state or charities.

Gender and Youth

The second day of the symposium saw a focus on ‘Gender’ and ‘Youth’. The Gender speakers included Okumba Miruka (independent consultant), Ester Mwaura-Muiru (Founder of GROOTS Kenya) and Elias Mutinda (agriculture and food security advisor, Action Aid Tanzania). The role of women in agriculture was a recurring theme throughout the two days. The fact that women do most of the agricultural work on the continent yet often are not recognised nor paid for their work was repeated and challenged. Often they are not able to own title deeds or be recognized as the rightful owners of their cropping land, and have little say as to what is planted. This needs to change: if the majority of African farmers are women, they need to be recognised legally and financially (and not just through micro-finance schemes!). A cultural shift must also occur which results in women becoming more empowered and able to be recognised for the work that they undertake.

Youth involvement in agriculture

The last discussion was that of ‘Youth’ and ‘Youth involvement in Agriculture’. Katindi Sivi was the speaker (Program Director SID East Africa) with three respondents: Moses Mutungi (Farm Concern International), Olawale Ojo (Agroprenuer Naija) and Emmie Kio (Young Professionals in Agricultural Research for Development). The respondents spoke about their experience as young farmers and farming advocates. They argued that the notion of agriculture being a ‘last resort’ was passed on by the older generation who should refrain from such thinking and rather encourage their children to farm. As Emmi Kio of YPARD stated ‘We need to stop spreading the ideology that farming is a poor man's profession.’ In fact, with adequate support and information, young people are often inclined to get involved in agriculture. The youth respondents also demonstrated their use of information and communications technology (ICT) and social media as platforms through which to communicate, disseminate information and advocate for youth in agriculture, using twitter handles such as @emmiewakio and @agropreneur9ja to do so [editor's note: Emmie Kio has also reflected on the event on her blog].

Some conclusions

Overall, a sense of African pride and unity against outside forces was prevalent in the room, with many of the comments and suggestions coming back to this point. The need to prioritise food security on the continent was also key, with a call to those in power and the youth, our future leaders, to fully commit to ensuring this rather than ensuring food security for outside countries through growing export crops and selling land. Africa needs to feed herself first, then the world.

Follow Adetola Okunlola on Twitter: @AdetolaOkunlola

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