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Investing in Food for Africa – And the Rest of Us

May 17, 2012

How fast is interest in Africa’s ability to produce food moving up the political agenda? Have a look at the speaker line-up for this Friday’s big agriculture and food security meeting in Washington, on the eve of the G8 summit of leaders of the world’s biggest economies.

President Barack Obama will be there. So will Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the presidents or prime ministers of Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana, and the heads of big banks, commodity exchanges, ag-related companies and United Nations agencies.

Why the interest? Because there’s good evidence the world is going to need at least 70 percent more food by 2050 to cope with population growth, changing appetites, demand for biofuel and other pressures on the food supply. And a good share of that extra food needs to come from Africa, which has the largest amount of under-used agricultural land in the world and the biggest potential to boost harvests.

 
“The whole world needs more food, and the belief is that food will come mainly from developing countries.”

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, head of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network and a spokesperson for the Farming First Coalition.

With the right kind of long-term investment, Africa could triple the amount of food it produces, experts say, helping improve not only it’s own fragile food security but the world’s.

“That’s what’s putting this on the global agenda,” says Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, head of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), based in southern Africa.

“The whole world needs more food, and the belief is that food will come mainly from developing countries,” she says. “The developed countries have reached the ceiling in terms of what science and technology can do” to further boost their production.

What the right kind of long-term investment in African agriculture looks like remains a matter of some debate. Since a dramatic spike in world food prices in 2008, firms from food-short but cash-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea have rushed into Africa, buying or paying for long-term leases on huge tracts of agricultural land, intent on growing food there to feed people back at home. Investors and financial speculators also have joined in the rush to snap up increasingly valuable African land, water and food.

For a continent long in need of agricultural investment, that influx of cash is seen as good news by some people, though others worry that buy-ups of Africa’s land by rich foreigners could eventually lead to local hunger, unrest and social problems.

The kind of investment Africa would most like to see, Sibanda says, is in technology and financing to help African farmers grow more food themselves. Projects are underway across the continent to introduce higher yielding and more resistant seeds, crop insurance programs, improved credit, and better technology to link farmers to markets, all aimed at boosting both harvests and African incomes.

Scaling up the efforts that work, quickly, will be crucial, Sibanda says, and will take the kind of investment Friday’s symposium on global agriculture and food security hopes to encourage.

“It’s an exciting time because African countries have come together to agree that agriculture is the backbone of African economies and we need to invest in it,” she says. “But we need help.”

Take a look at some innovative ideas on how to feed the world by 2050 at Solutions for a Hungry World, a multimedia package of stories published by AlertNet, the award-winning humanitarian news website of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

 
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