Reports emerging from the ongoing Africa Green Revolution Forum, which was officially opened by President Uhuru Kenyatta yesterday, are both hopeful and downbeat.
That nearly 20 per cent of Africa’s population is undernourished, according to a World Bank report, while 65 per cent of Africa’s arable soils lack necessary nutrients and that majority of farmers lack farm inputs and technical knowledge, reinforce the gloomy scenario.
The more upbeat perspective is that Africa has potential for agrarian transformation. That a global meeting of this magnitude is taking place in Nairobi and drawing massive attention and attendance is among the transformative steps.
Soils in Africa are inherently infertile with large swathes depleted by decades of overuse—growing same crops year after year, ploughing methods that expose the soil to erosion and cultivation practices that do not return organic matter to the soil.
The outcome is predictable—declining yields, severe erosion and poverty. Where they would harvest sizeable tonnes of grain, smallholder farmers have to make do with just a fraction. Summits such as the one in Nairobi should help chart a path that enables the farmer to change practices to restore soil fertility and boost yields.
Rotating crops with nitrogen-fixing legumes, upgrading technology and applying organic and inorganic fertilisers can change the fortunes. Unfortunately, farmers rarely get the fertiliser they need, when they need it and affordably. Then there is the hitch of inputs, especially in rural Africa.
As apprehension by Kenyan farmers from the breadbasket counties has proved, some fertilisers on sale is inappropriately formulated, substandard or adulterated.
As AGRA President Agnes Kalibata observed, agriculture remains a key path to sustainable economic growth for Africa, and so solutions must be sought to make the farmer benefit and be integral part to the transformation.
Some experts have suggested that carefully designed “smart” subsidies and related efforts to reduce the cost of fertiliser, ensure its quality and ways to improve access to this vital ingredient must be part of the solution. True, blanket subsidies are untenable for the government as they displace private-sector input-distribution systems and may not be very cost-effective at boosting yields all round.
However, subsidies should be seen as a short-term investment in the development of the sector, rather than as a permanent entitlement to farmers. To enhance such ideals, governments who according the Maputo Protocol committed 10 per cent of GDP to agriculture should show commitments through concrete interventionist steps like investment in training, especially for extension staff and effecting incentives such as removing non-tariff barriers through regional economic blocs, providing tax relief for firms in inputs distribution sector and cushioning agencies involved through policy frameworks that boost their worth in the value chain.