/ 25 June 2009

Malawi’s fertile plan

Four years ago Malawi faced starvation. The harvest had failed and the country had to import huge amounts of food to feed its citizens.

The Malawi government decided that this should not happen again. It devised a plan, central to which were small-scale African farmers, some of the most marginalised people.

The country’s National Assembly decided to give 3.4-million coupons to small-scale farmers to subsidise inorganic fertiliser and improved seeds.
The programme was aimed at empowering small-scale farmers and households were limited to two 50kg fertiliser bags each.

When the 2006 season started the country held its breath. The strategy worked — Malawi more than doubled its maize production. Realising that it was on to something, the government repeated the scheme. And in the 2007 season there was enough maize for the country to start exporting.

Kanayo Nwanze, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, smiles as he talks about the success story that is Malawi. He praises the government for the support that it gave to small-scale farmers and for helping them to link to markets. But the smile turns to a frown as he talks about the hard work that still remains for the continent to ensure that it has a stable supply of food.

Nwanze visited South Africa two weeks ago to address the World Economic Forum about Africa’s agricultural future. Since he took office in April, Nwanze has become a crusader for small-scale farmers and has urged governments to help these farmers to reach their full potential.

He said African governments had to invest in small farms to ensure food security for the continent’s poor, particularly as the global financial crisis threatens aid funding.

”Food security is an integral part of national security. You can see when food prices increased last year and people were not able to feed themselves, it led to riots,” he said. ”Look at what happened in Haiti.”

Africa is unique, he said, with just more than 80% of the continent’s population being farmers. But they still had a long way to go to reach their full potential. ”And these are mostly women and children,” he said.

Agriculture accounts for about 30% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, he said. And small-scale farmers represent 95% of agriculture on the continent.

”Smallholder agriculture is the largest private-sector activity in many African countries. It not only feeds families, it also provides jobs and catalyses the growth of rural businesses and broader development,” he said.

The governments of Africa had to treat agriculture as a business. Investment into the sector had to take the form of giving inputs, such as fertiliser, and providing micro-financing to small farmers, who might not have access to collateral.

”Setting the right agricultural policies, as Malawi did, is critical,” he said. ”From there you can go on to build capacity. Also critical is to provide access to markets.”

Nwanze said his organisation would lend a helping hand with both skills and financing where it was needed to help African governments if they ask for help.

He also spoke about the furore around statistics that showed Asian nations were buying vast tracts of land in Africa. The Mail & Guardian reported three weeks ago that there was concern that this might be the new neocolonialism of the 21st century with countries such as China and South Korea at the helm.

But Nwanze said he did not believe the investments were necessarily a bad thing for the continent, but rather an opportunity to get much-needed investment into African agriculture.

”If it is managed correctly, it becomes a win-win situation,” he said. ”I won’t dismiss it as simple neocolonialism. You have to look at it as an opportunity.”

Using Madagascar as an example, he said land had been bought by a South Korean multinational and this had led to instability in the government. But where land acquisition was done correctly, with transparent control measures in place, it could give a considerable boost to African agriculture.

Nwanze said African governments should become proactive to ensure that investment in land deals was used to its full potential and done on principles of sustainable development.

”It can’t simply benefit a few elite,” he said.

But he said big commercial farmers also had a large role to play in helping small-scale farmers to become successful. In South Africa there were wonderful examples of partnerships where small-scale farmers had benefited from the expertise of their bigger counterparts.