FAC’s conference held at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, on 21-22 June 2010, focused on the findings of the World Bank’s Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant report. This influential document argues that a huge area, defined broadly as the ‘Guinea Savannah’, stretching across West Africa with a second belt down to southern Africa, offers huge potential for a new era of commercial agriculture in Africa. Intensive commercial production in this zone, it is asserted, would be sufficient to supply growing domestic, regional and global markets. The report offers two models for agricultural development of this area – the Brazilian Cerrado region, focusing on large-scale commercial operations, and northeast Thailand, where a smallholder-led revolution took place.
The World Bank report made its case largely from the narrow standpoint of agricultural economics. As the conference highlighted, missing from the analysis was a more rounded assessment of ecological dynamics, health and disease interactions and social change processes, as well as a broader appreciation of the political economic context. FAC partners, led by Colin Poulton, who organised the event, ensured that the discussions added to the evidence base from a variety of cross-disciplinary angles in order to critically examine the World Bank’s claims that up to 400 million hectares of African savannah are ‘available for agricultural production, with the potential to make Africa an important competitor on global markets’. FAC members who contributed to the event included Kojo Amanor, Gem Argwings Kodhek, Andrew Dorward, Ruth Hall, Ian Scoones and John Thompson.
The FAC conference produced a number of outputs, including a Policy Brief, a web space for presentations and a blog report. These have helped shape the debate about the future of commercial agriculture in Africa. One reading of the ‘Sleeping Giant’ report was that this was a thumbs up for a model of large-scale commercial plantation agriculture – a position advocated by some with considerable policy influence and others with substantial commercial muscle. Brazilian support for this model, through Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (Embrapa) and private sector actors, is gathering pace, for example.
Yet the detailed evidence suggests much greater caution and qualification. At the FAC meeting were representatives of the African Development Bank and other donors who have often been beguiled by the idea that Africa’s agriculture can be transformed into a large-scale commercial model. Presenting balanced evidence from a range of disciplinary perspectives and encouraging a robust debate of the pros and cons, and disseminating these widely is the hallmark of Future Agriculture’s work. Beyond the FAC website, the findings from the discussions have been disseminated via the FARA-net, the Global Donor Platform for Rural Development, the London International Development Centre and the European Commission’s Directorate General for Research (DG RTD), as well as New Agriculturalist Magazine.