The Blog

A Modest Proposal for Feeding Africa

By pooling resources, farmer associations are able to set up seed banks, storage facilities and savings and credit groups, thus reducing the costs and risks farmers face and maximising their collective income.

In his recently released annual letter, Bill Gates has made a series of "big bets" for development. One of these bets, that Africa will be able to feed itself by 2030, is a view I also share. But I don't think we need a big bet to make it happen. Rather, I have a "modest proposal" that I believe can guide Africa towards a hunger and poverty-free future.

I call this a modest proposal, as the ingredients that will achieve food security in Africa are already known to us, and we already have parts of them working. Currently, average cereal yields in Africa are a little over over one tonne per hectare. In China, they are three and a half tonnes. Here in the UK it can be up to eight tonnes. Africa has places where European-level yields could be achieved. That is not the issue. It can be done, the question is how.

1. African farmers need rights to land, and to form part of industry associations.

In order to make African farmers more productive, we need to address the power imbalances they are currently facing. By giving a farmer more secure land rights, you are empowering him or her to invest in this land as an asset. He or she will be encouraged to opt for longer term, more sustainable farming practices that will improve soil health and preserve natural capital for future generations.

Furthermore, if farmers are organised into groups, they are able to significantly increase their bargaining power in the marketplace. By pooling resources, farmer associations are able to set up seed banks, storage facilities and savings and credit groups, thus reducing the costs and risks farmers face and maximising their collective income.

2. African farmers need access to seed, fertiliser and micro-credit locally, through agro-dealers.

Improved seeds that are more resilient to harsh climates are now available. In Kenya, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute has just released a number of drought-tolerant maize hybrids which are being marketed all over the country. But small-scale companies that get these improved seeds, and other essential ingredients such as fertilizer and micro-credit into farmers hands are needed. One model showing promise is having local "agro-dealers" based in small shops that sell inputs to neighbouring farmers, but also impart knowledge on the best way to use them.

3. African farmers need to be linked to fair, efficient and transparent markets.

A powerful way of linking farming to markets is by investing in warehousing. I recently visited a warehouse in Jinja in Uganda, built by young entrepreneurs. The farmers in the farmer associations deliver the maize within two days of harvest. It is collected, brought to the warehouse, graded, cleaned, fumigated, but it remains in the farmers' ownership. Along comes somebody to buy the maize. While we were there it was someone from the World Food Programme; they wanted 500 metric tonnes. The farmer associations then negotiate at the warehouse with the buyers. They come to a conclusion and then they will pay the warehouse for the storage, and so on and so forth. It is completely transparent and open, but there is only one of those warehouses in the whole of Uganda. They need 15 of them for a start. That is a way of getting the produce out into the market chain.

4. African farmers need to be supported to start up businesses along the agricultural value chain.

Increasing demand for food, particularly varied and processed food in urban regions of Africa, provides a ready market for willing entrepreneurs. From innovations on the farm to retail management and marketing, there is a vast opportunity for entrepreneurship along the entire agribusiness value chain. However, entrepreneurs are currently stifled by limited access to finance, low levels of skills and education, few market opportunities and a lack of broader institutional support. The 2014 Montpellier Panel report "Small and Growing: Entrepreneurship in African Agriculture" sets out recommendations to address these challenges, which include providing business training and dedicated financial products for small to medium sized businesses.

5. African farmers need to be linked into local and in particular regional markets in Africa, as well as international markets.

Intra-African trade is still an untapped opportunity. Cities were built with export markets in mind, with roads and railways leading to the coast. With investment in better roads that connect sub-Saharan Africa, food would be able to travel from one country to the other, and an integrated regional market can be built. The African Union is already working on this, through their Programme for Infrastructure Development. It is estimated that new transcontinental roads in Africa could generate $250 billion in trade over 15 years.

6. African farmers need political leadership and the right kinds of investment.

African farmers cannot thrive without favourable policies. Governments with leaders that are dedicated to agriculture are seeing impressive results. John Kufuor, when in power in Ghana, dedicated 10 per cent of the country's budget to agriculture, and in turn saw hunger halve. Nigeria's agriculture minister Akinwumi Adesina has tackled corruption in fertilizer distribution. These are the kind of changes that must come from the top.

These are the ingredients. If we get these right, we can achieve food security in Africa.