/ 2 May 2012

Grassroots shift reaps resilient crop

Grassroots Shift Reaps Resilient Crop

Feeding Africa, whether in crisis situations or just day to day, is a big task that requires organisations with resources and scale.

Sourcing and distributing food aid call for ships and trucks. Developing new strains of seed that have higher yields or demand less water is tough without sophisticated laboratories and specialist staff. Fighting desertification or livestock disease is a mammoth undertaking.

Even financing farm equipment requires access to big pools of capital and the administrative systems to service loans. Such projects are often driven by governments and foreign donors, leaving civil society to play the role of local partners, if that.

But throughout the continent a growing wave of initiatives is going local, working on a small scale and putting non-governmental organisations and community groups in charge.

Individually their impact is small, considering the scale of the problem, but collectively they hold the promise of allowing the continent to feed itself.

“[Efforts to improve food sustainability] must have at their heart Africa’s army of smallholder farmers, many of whom are women who grow the majority of the continent’s food,” former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan told a high-level panel on agriculture at the 17th Conference of the Parties in Durban last year.

Focus on small farmers
Such a focus on small farmers rather than the agro-businesses that led the developed world’s green revolution is already evident in the ideology of a wide range of institutions and is influencing everything from policies on land tenure to the flow of grant money.

Small-scale farmers need “good seed and healthy soils, access to markets, information, financing, storage and transport, and policies that provide them with comprehensive support,” said Jane Karuku, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

That means roads in rural areas and laws preventing capricious eviction. In many countries, lobby efforts are steering governments towards such spending and legislation. But it also means the innovative use of technology, local training, smart financing and other interventions that locals can launch with little money and outside support.

The range of such projects and the impact they can have is captured in a recent set of case studies from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which offers short-term credit through a warehouse-receipt system, giving farmers cash almost as soon as they harvest. It also offers field schools that allow farmers to test new practices, market information systems using SMSes to access prices or pool transport, the collective construction of small storage units and basic adult literacy and numeracy training.

Together, these not only increase the food security of farmers themselves but move them towards commercialisation, helping them to break free of what Monty Jones, the executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, calls the “cycle of famine and failed harvests” that comes with the belief that subsistence farming is the answer for Africa.

Benefits of high food prices
High food prices could, in fact, be an opportunity to prevent Africans going hungry in future.

“Small-scale producers in many developing countries were not able to reap the benefits of high food prices during the 2007-2008 food price crises. Yet this upward food price trend could have been an opportunity for them to increase their income and food security,” said the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in its recent report titled Good Practices in Building Innovative Rural Institutions to Increase Food Security.

“Evidence from the ground shows that when strong rural organisations such as producer groups and co-operatives provide a full range of services to small producers, they are able to play a greater role in meeting growing food demand on local, national and international markets.”

This requires not ships or laboratories, but the ability to build relationships and partnerships — skills that can be found in abundance throughout Africa.

The features on these pages were produced with support from the Southern Africa Trust