Africa: Farmers Shape Global Future Say World Leaders

Expanding the yield of smallscale agriculture is vital – not only to feed those in need, but to ensure global stability and preserve the environment.

These were among the key messages that emerged during the 35th session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) that ended in Rome today.

Opening the conference on Wednesday, the president of IFAD, Kanayo F. Nwanze, committed to lift up to 90 million people out of poverty through support for smallscale agriculture.

"When these farmers are recognized as small entrepreneurs, when they have access to better resources and incentives, and when they have access to markets and an enabling environment, they can transform their communities, their own lives, and indeed the world," Nwanze told delegates.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) estimates that 525 million farms exist worldwide, nearly 77 percent of which are small-scale (less than 2 hectares) and occupy about 60 percent of the world's arable land.

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In his address to representatives of IFAD's 167 member states, Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, underscored the relationships between food security, global security and the future of the planet. "A hungry world is an unjust world. It is also an unstable world."

Monti noted that "we are putting unsustainable pressure on the world's natural resources," and called for a "comprehensive approach" to address economic development and food security, which he said included economic and humanitarian aspects. "We need to find innovative and bold solutions to the conflicting needs of demographic change, job creation and environmental sustainability," he said.

Rwandan president Paul Kagame noted that "a significant increase" from smallholder farms over the past five years in Rwanda had made a "noticeable impact on the lives of our citizens".

Kagame said agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) has grown at an average of eight percent, ensuring food security and higher incomes for his country's farmers. "For example between 2007 and 2010, production of maize tripled and that of both wheat and cassava more than doubled," he said.

But despite the progress, Kagame warned that much remained to be done. He called for increased investment in "research and new technologies to raise production and productivity and for value addition, especially to staple food crops."

In his address to the agricultural council, Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, criticized the world's agriculture and food system as "outdated and inefficient". (emphasis mine)

"Countries, food agencies, and donors aren't working together in a focused and coordinated way to provide the help small farmers need, when they need it." However, Gates was optimistic about the current leadership of key global food agencies.

"We also have the world's attention, with agenda-setters like the African Union and the G20 focused on agriculture. And so – today – we have the opportunity and the obligation to imagine a different future."

Citing research by his foundation, Gates said it was possible for small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa "to double or almost triple their yields, respectively, in the next 20 years--while preserving the land for future generations. This is an ambitious goal".

To meet this goal, Gates said that farmers in both regions would have to increase productivity "three to five times faster than they have been doing over the past 20 years". This could translate into "400 million people lifting themselves out of poverty," he added.

"If you care about the poorest, you care about agriculture," said the Microsoft founder, who announced almost $200 million in grants to fund agricultural development "that works". The grants include multi-national projects that address systemic, structural challenges in food production and storage, such as poor quality seeds, plant diseases and post-harvest losses.

Gates added that several of these grants extended projects that were "already getting great results for farmers. For example, we are re-investing in projects that: supported the release of 34 new varieties of drought tolerant maize; delivered vaccines to tens of millions of livestock; and have trained more than 10,000 agro-dealers to equip and train farmers." (emphasis mine)

"Investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty, and they have made life better for billions of people. The international agriculture community needs to be more innovative, coordinated, and focused to help poor farmers grow more. If we can do that, we can dramatically reduce suffering and build self-sufficiency."

With a world population projected to be more than nine billion in 2050, increased productivity is crucial. "If we want to transform the lives of people in Africa, we need to focus our efforts on raising agricultural productivity, creating markets and making agriculture a business, not a development activity," said Akin Adesina, Nigerian Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development.

IFAD head Nwanze called for "perseverance, patience and determination" to reduce rural poverty and create climate-smart ways for smallholders to build their resilience."

Nwanze highlighted the importance of women, who shoulder a heavy workload in rural areas. IFAD has long argued that there will be no substantial progress in poverty reduction unless there is greater investment in women, who are not only half the population but also grow most of Africa's food.

Monti reinforced that message, saying that "giving women equal access to agricultural resources is one of the most powerful ways of reducing poverty and hunger". The Italian prime minister departed from his written remarks to say that the lack of empowerment of rural women is not only "a huge loss for them and their families but for their countries as a whole." If women had the same access to land, credit and other assets as men, he said, "they would increase yields on their farms 20-30 per cent" – a lesson he said his own and other developed countries should also learn.

And with more than half of the rural population in developing countries between the ages of 15 and 25, Nwanze challenged leaders of the developing world, to work in partnership with IFAD to "harness youth's tremendous energy and provide opportunities for them, particularly in rural areas."

"We will need the young people of today to be the farmers of tomorrow," Nwanze said.