Africa can feed itself — and it should

It might surprise many who know of my life in politics and international affairs, but in my heart I consider myself a farmer.

I am very proud of my two terms as president of Nigeria. I feel privileged as well that, since retirement, I have been asked to mediate in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d’Ivoire and to have lobbied world leaders to deliver on their promises to Africa on debt relief and increased aid.

But few achievements give me greater pride and satisfaction than the livestock, crop and vegetable farm I started in 1979 and where I now spend much of my time.

The farm, not far from Lagos, is where I rear chickens, pigs, ostriches and other livestock. I built it to show my countrymen and women, especially the young, the huge potential of agriculture and what can be done with the land. It is, I hope, a practical demonstration of the policies I pushed in government to promote food and nutrition security and to focus on the crucial role of agriculture in fighting hunger and alleviating poverty through wealth creation.

We can point out real success in Nigeria and many countries on our continent in improving agriculture, but we still have a long way to go.

In many areas of Nigeria, the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, children and families continue to go hungry. Millions more suffer from malnutrition around the continent and in many other parts of the world. The current crisis in East Africa, where more than 13-million people are affected by extreme hunger, has tragically brought this issue to the forefront.

However, there is no reason for this immense human tragedy. Our continent has the resources and science has given us the solutions to prevent hunger crises permanently. We have the means to grow not just enough food for our needs, but to produce a surplus for export.

We now have a historic opportunity to put this right.

At the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia at the end of January, the continent’s leaders can help lead the world in ending hunger and preventing a recurrence of the East Africa emergency. The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in Berlin provides another powerful platform to focus the efforts of the international community on food security.

So what do we need to see in Ethiopia and Germany? Africa’s leaders must endorse the new Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a comprehensive blueprint drawn up by a coalition of international and African aid agencies. The charter, already signed by Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, sets out the practical steps that must be taken by governments to make extreme hunger crises history. AU governments should pledge themselves to fulfil its commitments.

These include heeding early drought warnings and setting up social safety nets for the poor. We need action, too, to protect people from rising food prices that have pushed many into hunger. Supporting local food production, limiting the use of food export bans and judiciously tapping into emergency food reserves are just some of the ways the impact can be mitigated.

More specifically, we must ensure that support in Ethiopia and Germany for initiatives such as the Africa-led productive safety net programme, funded by both Africa and the West, results in cash and food transfers to millions of poor farmers in Ethiopia.

Giving them a more secure and predictable income protects them against sudden hunger crises. In exchange, they agree to take part in public works, such as road construction, which in turn help to improve the agricultural output of their communities.

Another programme, run by the Save the Children charity in partnership with local authorities in northeast Kenya, provides vouchers to pastoral communities in areas hit hard by recurring droughts. These vouchers can be used to buy food in local markets, giving a boost to local traders and herdsmen and women while putting people in control of how they manage food crises. There are many similar initiatives that we can support and expand.

Science, technology, innovation and creativity are providing the tools for us to win the battle against hunger. Farmers, too, are ready to do whatever it takes to grow the crops needed to feed our world. What is needed now is to put the products of these scientific advances, with financial and non-financial support, into the hands of farmers.

Time is running out. Food prices keep rising and the effects of climate change are leading to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and severe drought. By taking action, African leaders can show the world how to end extreme hunger.

Our continent continues to need help from the international community, which is why the efforts of the world’s agriculture ministers in Germany are so important. But every time I walk through the fields, I am reminded that the solution lies in our own hands and on our lands.

Olusegun Obasanjo is the former president of Nigeria and a member of the Africa Progress Panel


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