Renewing African agriculture

As 2008 draws to a close, I and other colleagues of mine in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which supports my Africa-based institute, the International Livestock Research Institute, have been reflecting on a 'New Deal' for African farmers, who face special agricultural conditions that demand special attention.

Rural Africa remains largely hungry and poor despite decades of improved agricultural technologies, crop varieties and management and policy options generated by agricultural science to help solve the continent's special agricultural challenges.

What's been missing is an  integrated approach to African agriculture that is radically collaborative, holistic and futuristic - an approach that embraces rather than ignores the complexity of small-scale African farming and marketing and the continent's special agro-ecological and cultural diversity.

We need not only new and better adapted crop varieties and more productive and more efficiently managed livestock, fisheries, tree crops and forests, but also new ways of serving small farmers, new and more efficient market chains that encourage smallholder participation, and new ways of spurring innovation at all levels, from farms to communities to institutions.

We need an integrated approach to Africa's special agricultural conditions that follows neither the highly intensified farming systems of the West, which now are also being rethought because of their high human and environmental costs, nor mere incremental improvements to Africa's traditional subsistence mixed crop, tree, fish and livestock farming systems, which can merely lock people into farm poverty for generations.

Experts reckon that doing these things will require a doubling of current investments in science. Such augmented levels of investments would indeed enable the scientific community to advance developing-country agricultural research. And it still wouldn't make a difference to most of Africa's food producers and sellers.

We need a New Deal for African agricultural research that involves every major stakeholder in development of this vast sector. Central to the new deal is adequate support for national and regional research and the farm input services that enable the agricultural sector to perform.

We need to learn how to connect all the dots - how to integrate the work of science groups with that of the many other players in developing-country agriculture in ways that deliver all the given specific pieces needed to support, improve and sustain African farming in specific circumstances. Betting on a single farm component or group of actors, whether a new technology or a world body, to transform Africa's agricultural sector is not going to work.

We're not going to banish crises such as the fertilizer crisis, the food crisis, the fuel crisis and now the financial crises that we've experienced over the past year, but we can learn to prepare for and manage them faster and better. This will require all research institutions to start talking to development institutions, to start building new kinds of partnerships, and to start taking on some radical new ways of doing business. It's bound to be a messy process. But a necessary one.

These new partnerships must embrace Africa's diversity as a strength in revitalizing and reforming Africa's food systems as a whole - from how we grow food to how we transport and process it to how we cook and eat it. With the era of cheap energy drawing to a close, old approaches will not work as before. We need new thinking, new systems, new diversification, new markets, new policies and new actors to build a 21st-century food system that works.

This will require not so much a new development pathway as an abundance of mix-and-match development pathways suiting Africa's greatly diverse agro-eco- and socio-economic conditions. We need nuanced and differentiated solutions for Africa's highly differentiated farming systems and household conditions.

To do this, we'll need new skills and tools and to determine what options best suit which particular circumstances. Doing this should allow agricultural researchers, for the first time, to make Africa's diversity and complexity work for Africa, as a wealth of resources, rather than against Africa, as a wealth of problems.

Many agree that major international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund require major overhauls to remain relevant in tackling our current and future global challenges. The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, which supports 15 centres working for sustainable agricultural development in poor countries, has been engaging in this throughout 2008. At its annual meeting, in Maputo, Mozambique, 1-5 December 2008, it furthered the process of reinventing itself by reorganizing its structure and processes to form a cohesive, coherent and-above all-collaborative foundation on which to build anew the international agricultural research for development enterprise.

Carlos Seré
Director General
International Livestock Research Institute


Editor's Note: The International Livestock Research Institute can be found here.