The continent has the chance to shape its agricultural development differently, says Dr Robin R. Sanders.

Ambassador Robin Sanders

Can sub Saharan Africa be the next bread basket for the world and help to address global food security issues?

The answer is yes; the challenge is how.

Sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the developing world have a key role to play in deciding, shaping and leading food security policy for the coming decades. Why? Because of several key indicators that should not be either underestimated or overlooked: population, economic growth, water and land use in sub-Saharan Africa – what I like to call key impact indicators on food availability.

Sub-Saharan Africa has an opportunity to do things differently and earlier on its development and modernization life, something that few other world regions have today outside of Latin America.

Africa should be one of the leading regions in shaping global food security policies and feeding the future instead of others shaping it for Africa. Developing practical, integrative and more small-scale solutions for agricultural inputs and outputs, farming, and for managing both land and water resources will help Africa provide for future generations on the continent and elsewhere. This was recently summarised in the State of the World 2011 report by the US-based Worldwatch Institute, subsequently covered by the Guardian, as well as the Green Revolutions for Sub-Saharan Africa briefing by the UK think tank Chatham House.

The new tillers

A closer look at the key impact indicators of population, along with the practical and integrative solutions below, will demonstrate why Africa should raise its profile and be a leading voice on how global food security policy unfolds (the impact indicators of water and land will be addressed in a separate blog post).

For example, who are the next generations of farmers and where are they going to come from?

Current continent-wide population growth rates average 2.45 and is estimated to remain on that level until 2050 when it will be home to 1.9 billion people, up from today’s billion. Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is young – more than half of the people living on the continent are under the age of 25 and if the trajectory remains the same, Africa will be host to 29 per cent of the people in the world of that age group by 2050.

What does this mean for the foundations of food security? It means that Africa must encourage its youth to see its food security issues as vital to its development in the first instance, and be a exporting continent of key staples in the second instance.

Most African countries remain major importers of key staples such as rice, maize and wheat, and are not self-sufficient in cassava, cowpeas and other indigenous commodities. Technical innovation and integration of sucessfull practices need to enter the picture more so that self-sufficiency issues are addressed and crop exports increase.

Alternative crop uses must also be sought. For example, Nigeria is host to a cassava-to-glucose agribusiness supplied by several farming cooperatives. This non-traditional use of cassava supplies glucose not only in Nigeria, but to other countries in the West African region.

Solutions can be simple

With its large population, the sheer size of the continent and the relatively weak infrastructure in many places, the affects of poor development in food security policy going forward will likely hit Africa harder than any other region. But solutions need to be thoughtful and forward leaning. So what to do?

First, focus on training this vast cadre of youth to see farming in a new and positive way. This includes using different approaches such as more organized small-scale farmers (cooperatives or groups of cooperatives) that produce quality and improved yields in environmentally-sustainable ways, such as better waste management, and using biogas, solar and wind energy.

Second, work with these new farmers and current farmers (particularly women) to develop and deploy more innovative technology from improved crop rotation to the use of hybrid seeds, water harvesting and climate change sensitive irrigation techniques (such as drip, solar driven, etc.). In addition expand efforts in aquaculture.

Third, seek ways to connect food security to other quality of life issues such as health and education. Some of the best small scale projects in sub-Saharan Africa are examples in the Republic of Congo, Benin, Tanzania, Nigeria, and several other places where cooperative farmers’ health issues are addressed along with food safety and storage problems, or when small gardens are developed for schools, ensuring a healthy school time meal for students, teachers, and mothers who bring their children to school. For example, Benin’s Songhai Integrative Project uses appropriate technology, bio-gas and environmentally-sound approaches to both cooperative farming and small scale agro-industries.

The outcome: reduced hunger, along with poverty reduction as increased, quality yields are sold at market (or exported regionally) for income that can be used to address other quality of life and development issues such as housing, health services and paying for school fees.

With proper planning, the right democratic leadership, transparent resource management; progressive, innovative food security policies; and integrative agriculture inputs and outputs, Africa’s young population can contribution enormously to addressing both continent-wide and global food security issues over the coming decades because many of the world’s future farmers are right now on the continent.

About Dr. Robin Renée Sanders, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria

Dr Robin Renée Sanders, a career member of the senior Foreign Service, arrived in Nigeria in December, 2007. Most recently, she served as International Advisor and Deputy Commandant at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, DC. Prior to this position, she served as the US Ambassador to the Republic of Congo (2002-2005) and as Director for Public Diplomacy for Africa for the State Department (2000-2002). She served twice as the Director for Africa at the National Security Council at the White House; and was the Special Assistant for Latin America, Africa, and International Crime for the Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the State Department (1996-1997). Ambassador Sanders holds a DSc in Information Science and Communication from Robert Morris University, MA in International Relations and Africa Studies, and an MSc in Communications and Journalism from Ohio University. She also holds a BA in Communications from Hampton University.

Dr Sanders is the recipient of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Civilian Honor Award; three State Department Superior Honor Awards; four State Department Meritorious Honor Awards; the ‘President Merit of Honor Award’ from the Republic of Congo, and several citations in Who’s Who of America. She is a national board member of Operation Hope – a non-profit organization focused on empowerment of at-risk communities.

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