Africa should promote sustainable agriculture

Nothing better illustrates the crucial role that science must play in farming in Africa than the contrasts in agricultural productivity between our continent and the world as a whole. For while food productivity has increased globally by 140 per cent in recent decades, the figures for sub-Saharan Africa over the same period show a fall.

This is not because of any lack of effort by Africa’s farmers. Agriculture remains for far too many an exhausting dawn to dusk occupation for very little reward. Indeed, it is because farming across much of the continent has changed little in generations that the role of science is so important.

For what these dismal figures underline is how Africa’s agriculture has been cut off from the scientific advances which have transformed yields in many other parts of the globe. We can see the impact of this neglect across our continent. One in three people in sub-Saharan Africa are chronically hungry, the highest proportion in the world. Many more suffer from consistently poor diets. Malnutrition is a catastrophic brake on progress, damaging every aspect of lives. Malnutrition throughout pregnancy and childhood stunts development, increasing vulnerability to disease and reducing capacity to learn at school. All of this feeds into the wider economy and society, with increased health care costs, poorer productivity and economic growth.

And if this was not bad enough, climate change is making these challenges worse. By giving farmers access to the latest scientific knowledge and, crucially, providing them with the support to make full use of it, the results can be truly remarkable.

With rains becoming more irregular, this must focus in particular on crop varieties which can thrive on less water. We need as well to develop new farming techniques which make the most of every drop of water there is. One of the major reasons why farming yields in Africa are behind those in many other parts of the world is that only a small proportion of land under cultivation is irrigated.

This offers real potential for increasing harvests. But as climate change continues and pressure on scarce resources increases, we have to find ways, too, of growing more with less water. Water-related issues are compounded by a multitude of other challenges. Transportation of foodstuffs from rural producers to cities is severely hindered by poor roads, driving prices ever higher. A lack of storage facilities means that produce often begins to rot before it can be sent to market. The inability to process foodstuffs locally forces developing nations to export their produce cheaply and purchase final products at higher costs.

The long-term solution must be to promote truly sustainable agriculture both in small-holdings, which continue to produce the majority of Africa’s food, and large-scale commercial farms. We need a combination of both working together if we are to meet the continent’s food needs now and in the future.

Mr Kufuor is a former President of Ghana and the 2011 World Food Prize Laureate.