African small farmers key to crop revolution

Africa’s small-scale farmers growing local crops can lead a belated “green revolution” on the world’s poorest continent, the new head of a $500-million agricultural project said.

Higher output of foods such as cassava, sorghum and yams could help reduce imports of rice, wheat and maize, said Amos Namanga Ngongi, named the first president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) on Wednesday.

“There is no acceptable reason for Africa’s farmers to be poor,” said Ngongi, born in Cameroon and a former United Nations under-secretary general. “About 75% of Africa’s poor live on small farms when farmers should be doing reasonably well.

“The issue is now to try to get the resources to support the small farmers to produce more than enough for themselves to eat and then link into the market systems to lift them out of poverty,” he told Reuters in an interview from Accra.

Agra reckons a solution to poverty is to help small farmers with better seeds, fertilisers, small-scale irrigation systems and access to markets to help sell any surpluses.

The initiative favours more use in Africa of well-tested crops such as cassava, plantains, yams or sorghum. There were hundreds of varieties suited to African conditions before any need to consider GMOs, Ngongi said.

Agra, formed in late 2006 and with offices in Accra and Nairobi, has initial five-year funds totalling $500-million from the US Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Agra is hoping for more funds, he said.

Lags Asia

Africa has failed to match Asia or Latin America in raising farm output in recent decades, partly because large areas are unsuitable for growing rice, wheat and maize.

Mismanagement by African governments and a lack of foreign aid had also stood in the way.

“Since the early 1960s, Africa has gone from being a net food exporter to a net importer,” Ngongi said.

As part of new projects Agra is helping a centre in Ghana, for instance, to produce crop varieties suited to West Africa. In Kenya, Agra is cooperating with banks to get loans to support farmers. “The next challenge is how to process Africa’s food to compete in terms of preparation time against rice and wheat,” he said. “If we can transform Africa’s food into easily prepared foods we will reduce the need for imports.

“Preparing food in Africa is very time-consuming. Women spend hours pounding millet and sorghum to turn it into food for their families. And some foods just take just too long to cook in a continent short of firewood,” he said. He said that cassava—a root which can be boiled like a potato, fried or processed into flour—could help. “Cassava could be the major food item on Africa’s lunch and dinner tables,” he said. “It grows in a wide ecological belt.” - Reuters

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