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African Voices

Dr. Agnes Kalibata, President, AGRA addresses the media ahead of the opening of the AGRF conference, 2019.

Council expert Roger Thurow explains how most African countries don’t have the resources to provide aid to their own citizens.

Listen to these African voices

"As our governments take action, we need the international community to do its part as well. A green revolution in Africa depends on locally driven solutions plus reliable donor support. Neither ingredient is sufficient on its own—both are indispensable."

These are the words of two African agriculture ministers—Agnes Kalibata of Rwanda and Joseph Sam Sesay of Sierra Leone—written in The Guardian this week. Their countries are at the forefront of African-led efforts to engineer an agriculture transformation on the continent. Since 2007, Rwanda has increased its investment in agriculture by 30% and Sierra Leone has boosted spending on agriculture to nearly 10% of its budget from just 1.6%. Accordingly, food production has dramatically increased and malnutrition is in retreat.

And yet they know that they can’t finance all their agriculture needs themselves. They need the support of the international community.

Their plea for "reliable donor support" is a repudiation to all those who believe that Africa would be better off without foreign aid. Aid to agriculture isn’t dead aid, it is living aid. As international aid for the development of African agriculture has severely diminished over the past three decades, the continent’s agriculture hasn’t thrived, as the less-aid-is-better argument would conclude. Instead, African agriculture productivity has severely slumped along with the aid.

The development of agriculture in every country in the world has required government assistance. Rich countries like the U.S. and those of Europe could provide their own aid to their farmers—and continue to do so in massive amounts. But most African countries, so poor and so far behind in agriculture, don't have the resources to do it on their own. So they are reaching out—not for food aid to feed their people but for agriculture development aid so their people can feed themselves. The ministers go on to say:

"We know the solutions to our systemic challenges: our farmers need improved inputs, including seeds as well as improved soils; they need roads that will connect them to markets; they need agribusiness credit and private sector investments to spur growth; they need facilities to reduce their estimated 40-60% post-harvest losses and they need training and technology to cope with climate change. Most of all, they are yearning for results. If we can boost agricultural productivity, we can accelerate economic growth and raise incomes for communities, countries, and our continent as a whole."

These words are a repudiation to those who say that Africa's agriculture development efforts are being steered by outside forces intent on imposing American products on unwitting Africans. Ministers Kalibata and Sesay know as well as anyone what is needed to boost food production in their countries. These aren't solutions being imposed from the outside. They are common sense solutions that every agriculture system in the world needs to be successful. Africa shouldn't be expected to settle for less. And it is aid to support projects desired and designed by the African governments themselves, rather than aid that funds donor-driven projects.

The aid they seek isn't aid that will just be scattered around their countries wily-nily, like farmers indiscriminately scattering seed on the soil. It is aid that will be targeted to specific agriculture projects, like farmers taking care to plant their seeds in a disciplined manner that will give them the greatest chance of yielding strong crops. This isn’t foolish aid, it is wise aid.

The ministers' concern is that the rhetorical pledges of rich world countries to aid Africa's agriculture development aren’t translating into monetary commitments. The Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, a new multi-donor fund to help the world’s poorest farmers, was launched in April with an initial commitment totaling $880 million. In June, the Fund made its first allocations, dispersing a total of more than $200 million to five of the eight countries that had submitted proposals for agriculture development projects.

Rwanda and Sierra Leone were among the five countries receiving grants. Rwanda is using the money to support its efforts to terrace hillside farms and create a better watershed system that will hold soil and seeds in place during the heavy rains. In Sierra Leone, the money is adding to the government's investments in post-harvest storage and marketing infrastructure that will help smallholder farmers move from subsistence to commercial farming.

But since those initial grants, the flow of money into the Fund has slowed. Some two dozen countries, most of them in Africa, are expected to apply for funding during the next allocation in coming weeks. But fund managers say there may only be enough to finance projects in three countries. The agriculture ambitions in the countries turned away will be slowed.

Listen to the voices of Africa. "Let our collective action be sustained," they are saying, "until we end food insecurity."

Outrage and Inspire

This blog post originally appeared in Roger Thurow's Outrage and Inspire blog which has now been incorporated into the Global Food for Thought blog.

About the Author
Roger Thurow
Former Senior Fellow, Global Food and Agriculture
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Roger Thurow spent three decades at The Wall Street Journal as a foreign correspondent based in Europe and Africa prior to joining the Council in 2010. His coverage spanned the fall of the Berlin Wall, the release of Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, and humanitarian crises. He is the author of three books.
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