On my way straight from Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi to a meeting and stuck in one of the city’s endless car jams, my taxi driver began a conversation about the lack of rain.

A veteran of countless conversations with his counterparts in London, which normally end up with a rant against the government of the day, I was wary. This one, however, was different. It was wide-ranging, comprising a discourse from him on the merits of drought-resistant maize seed and the challenges of accessing it, interspersed with my own reminiscences of farm life as a boy on the other side of the continent in Ghana and the challenges of smallholder farmers’ access to global markets.

Every Family Connected To Agriculture

This exchange reminded me of one of Africa's great realities: no matter where you are or what you do, every family is in some way connected to the land. Agriculture remains a vast still largely untapped resource for the continent awaiting the long overdue green revolution.

Fortunately, there are increasing signs for optimism regarding agricultural development in Africa. According to the 2016 African Agriculture Status Report, after decades of stagnation, Africa’s farms have registered sustained agricultural productivity growth since 2005.

“If we are to ensure that agriculture can play its true role as a catalyst in achieving sustainable development in Africa, we must take decisive action.” Paul Boateng, Trustee of the Planet Earth Institute

International organizations are also prioritizing agriculture. For instance, the African Development Bank’s annual meeting to be held next week (22-26) in India under the banner “Transforming Agriculture for Wealth Creation in Africa”, a meeting that I will be attending.

Why is this theme significant? Africa harbors immense agricultural potential, which can help power its socioeconomic transformation. With some 200 million hectares, Sub-Saharan Africa boasts half of the world’s arable land that can be used for agricultural production. The sector also remains the backbone of Africa’s economy, accounting for 24 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the total value of goods produced and services provided annually — across the region and employing just over 60 per cent of local labor forces. Agriculture’s role in the continent’s future economic development is only set to grow, with its food and beverage markets predicted to reach US$1 trillion by 2030.

For the most part, however, the continent’s agricultural promise remains unfulfilled. The sector’s productivity lags behind other developing regions, which affects Africa’s food security and imperils future economic growth. The continent’s farmlands and rangelands are increasingly degraded, resulting in lower crop yields for farmers. In addition, 95 percent of agriculture in African countries is rain-fed, and the continent’s reliance on its agricultural sector and low levels of irrigation make it particularly vulnerable to changes in climate patterns. Infrastructural problems and a lack of appropriate financing further hamper the sector’s growth.

Why Science, Technology & Innovation Are Essential

If we are to ensure that agriculture can play its true role as a catalyst in achieving sustainable development in Africa, we must take decisive action. I believe that investing in scientific and technological innovation is essential to boosting agricultural productivity and alleviating poverty.

Scientific research can create the higher-yielding, resilient food crops needed to boost agricultural growth, and improve our citizens’ well-being. For example, before the introduction of drought-resistant maize in South Africa in 2002, average yields in South Africa were around 2.4 tons per hectare. According to an agricultural economist, Wandile Sihlobo, these actually increased to around 5.3 tons per hectare in 2013/2014, the highest average commercial yield on the African continent. These GM maize crops have also proven to be more tolerant against armyworm, an invasive pest causing havoc in Uganda, as well as other African countries, than conventional crop varieties.

I was also impressed to learn about the development of the orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) on the continent which the World Food Prize called “the single most successful example of micronutrient and vitamin biofortification”.

At a recent event held by the Planet Earth Institute, we heard from Robert Mwanga, a member of the team from the International Potato Center (CIP) that developed this innovation. Mwanga and his colleagues, Maria Andrade and Jan Low, developed disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, high-yielding OFSP varieties that can flourish in the diversity of soils and climates in Sub-Saharan Africa.

What makes this innovation especially valuable is that the scientists have bred vitamin A and other crucial nutrients into these staple crops, which can reduce hidden hunger for millions. Since 2009, the successes of the CIP’s work have been shared throughout the region, with nine countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Uganda releasing 56 new superior varieties, 40 of which are orange-fleshed.

These products can play a vital role in enhancing food security on the continent and combatting vitamin A deficiency, which affects more than 43 million children on the continent.

An increasing number of African countries have also found that investment in space science and technology can provide essential data for decision-making in agriculture. Nigeria’s first orbiting satellite, NigeriaSat-1, for instance, provides data and imagery to help monitor conditions that may affect the country’s farmers who make up 70 percent of its workers. The satellite was also used to create the first detailed map of the country, allowing the government and policymakers to determine where farming takes place, and provide better support for its large rural communities.

Financing Key To Agricultural Sector

Finally, according to the African Development Bank, low levels of special financing are one of the major constraints in boosting the agricultural sector in African countries. The latest technologies can help enhance access to finance for the continent’s smallholder farmers who comprise 80 per cent of local agricultural workers.

In Kenya, the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, UAP Insurance, and telecoms giant, Safaricom, partnered to create Kilimo Salama (‘Safe Agriculture’), an insurance product for Kenyan farmers. Using the MPESA gateway, a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service a widely used, the product will offer farmers, who plant on very small fields, insurance policies to protect them from significant financial losses incurred during drought or excessive rainfalls. Given that such programs can truly enhance farmers’ productivity, I would encourage the continent’s private sector companies to explore similarly impactful activities that can generate a competitive financial return.

As Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s vice-president for Africa, writes, “A vibrant, sustainable and resilient agricultural sector is vital for Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic future”.

I hope that moving forward, we will see new partnerships developing in which the private sector works with universities to take advantage of the new enabling environment that central bank governors and ministers of finance and agriculture are creating on the ground in Africa.

This is the surest pathway to move from “striving to thrive” in agriculture, with science and innovation as its foundation.

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