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Food crisis yields an African opportunity

World demand means small farmers might finally make a profit.

June 14, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

NYAMATA, RWANDA — When he was a boy, Charles Munyawera's parents abandoned the Rwandan countryside in search of richer opportunities in Kigali, the capital city.

Now the 62-year-old entrepreneur is heading back to this nation's agricultural heartland, lured by a worldwide food crisis that is turning a backbreaking and often-unprofitable way of life into what may be one of the hottest opportunities around.

Munyawera recently invested $300 as one of about 140 participants in a farming cooperative that expects to reap its first corn harvest this summer. Although the cooperative remains untested in many ways, he's already lined up buyers and expects prices to be 35% higher than just six months ago.

"Demand is huge," Munyawera said, beaming.

In Africa, a place all too familiar with chronic malnutrition and recurring famines, the international food crisis is playing out in some surprising ways.

Soaring prices are pummeling urban dwellers who rely on imported food and often earn less than $2 a day. Riots have already rocked Somalia and Cameroon.

But in rural areas, home to most Africans, small farmers live largely on what they grow. The food crisis could be a boon for such farmers, who depend far more on last season's rainfall and the condition of local roads than on crude oil prices.

As governments focus on reducing their dependency on imports, small farmers are poised to receive some overdue assistance. And rising prices will mean farmers have incentives to plant more after decades of productivity declining under the weight of poverty, foreign competition and a marketplace flooded with subsidized food.

"This might be one of the best opportunities that poor subsistence-level farmers will ever have to claw their way out of poverty," said Josh Ruxin, founder of Access Project Rwanda, an anti-poverty advocacy group. "For the first time in years, they might be able to make some money."

Roots of the current food crisis are global: growing demand for meat in China and India, diversion of U.S. corn for ethanol, record oil prices and an Australian drought.

Helping African farmers help themselves will be far cheaper for the international community than a more drastic measure such as an emergency bailout, said Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at Columbia University's Earth Institute, a poverty research and advocacy group.

Sanchez said that just $70 worth of basic assistance, such as better seeds and fertilizer, would enable the average African farmer to grow an additional ton of corn. Delivering the same amount of corn as emergency aid would cost $700, he said.

Nevertheless, international donors, the World Bank and most African governments for decades have largely ignored the needs of farmers, despite the fact that agriculture is the continent's largest economic sector and biggest employer.

Growers of African staples such as corn, sorghum, which provides grain and syrup, and cassava, which has starchy roots used as a vegetable and for bread flour, still farm much as their ancestors did. They till the soil by hand, use of fertilizer is uncommon, and less than 5% of arable land is irrigated.

Rather than high-quality, improved seeds, many farmers in Africa use leftovers from previous harvests. Without proper storage facilities, they must sell their harvest twice a year during the high season after the rains, when prices are lowest.

Agricultural productivity fell in Africa during the last 50 years, even as it grew everywhere else. Average crop yields are one-quarter to one-third of those in Asia.

"Africa is the only region where farmers can't even feed themselves," said A. Namanga Ngongi, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, an agriculture research group based in Nairobi, Kenya.

In Rwanda, the statistics are even more disheartening, despite the fact that subsistence farmers constitute 80% of the population: Less than 1% of the farmland is irrigated. The average plot size is about five acres.

The picturesque countryside is so lush and the soil so rich that it would seem anything would grow. Yet productivity has dropped 20% since 1990, according to the World Food Program.

"Farming was easier for my parents," said 35-year-old Clementine Bazibagira, dwarfed by green stalks of corn and sorghum as she tended to her plot in Nyamata, a bucolic farming town in central Rwanda that became a tinderbox in the 1994 genocide.

Bazibagira, a single mother, said she and her four children eat most of what she grows but hope for a small surplus to sell to raise cash for school fees, salt and soap.

Her parents had owned much of the surrounding area, but the land was sold off and divided among other family members, leaving her with just two acres. Her father had animals, which provided manure for fertilizer. But she can't afford either. Her only tool is a wood-handled hoe.

"The land was more fertile back then," she said.

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