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Hungry Africa needs to focus on agriculture, new book says

Calestous Juma, a development scientist, says Africa can turn around by improving roads and transportation, training engineers and using irrigation, solar energy and more technology.

December 01, 2010|By Robyn Dixon, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — The problem: African hunger. In a nutshell, 250 million Africans are undernourished, a quarter of the population and an increase of 100 million in the last 20 years. Yet 70% of Africans are farmers growing food.

The hope: Within one generation, Africa will grow enough to feed itself.

But how? According to Calestous Juma, a Harvard professor and Kenyan development scientist, Africa can turn its fortunes around by improving roads and transportation, training an army of engineers and using irrigation, solar energy and more technology.

Africa's farming record is dismal. As global agriculture has surged in the last four decades, African food production has sagged.

Globally, agricultural production grew nearly 150%. Africa's population recently surpassed 1 billion, but its production of food has shrunk 10% since the 1960s.

To make things worse, global warming is predicted to hit Africa hard. Three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africa is arid or desert, and water resources such as Lake Chad are disappearing. Global warming is forecast to cut per capita income in the region by as much as 5%, compared with the global average of 1%.

Yet Juma, of Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, is convinced that with the right policies, Africa could feed itself within a generation, ending its reliance on food aid.

Juma's prescription, laid out in his new book, "The New Harvest, Agricultural Innovation in Africa," seems almost as optimistic as the Millennium Development Goals set down by world leaders in 2000, which call for halving hunger and extreme poverty worldwide by 2015. (At the current pace, most of the goals will not be met.)

Juma's book is being launched Thursday by Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete at a summit of East African leaders in Arusha, Tanzania, to discuss food insecurity. The recommendations of the book, which is published by Oxford University Press, were adopted this year by Africa's largest trading bloc, the 19-member Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

The book's prescriptions come in the wake of some spectacular agricultural debacles in Africa, notably in Zimbabwe and South Africa, where most farms transferred from white farmers to black owners have failed.

The book skirts the contentious issue of land reform.

"We avoided the land [reform] issue deliberately, actually," Juma said in a telephone interview. "A good number of people on the land don't have the effective knowledge on how to use it."

In South Africa, 90% of redistributed farms have failed, according to the government.

In Zimbabwe, where production is sinking, a study by the South-African-based independent Zimbabwe news website ZimOnline reported Tuesday that nearly half the farmland seized from white farmers since 2000, or about 12 million acres, had ended up in the hands of President Robert Mugabe's family, cronies, generals, judges, government ministers, senior police officers and ruling party loyalists.

And in Kenya, said Juma, 30% to 40% of farmland was held by people with no farming expertise.

Juma identifies knowledge, infrastructure and technology as key to developing African agriculture.

At the heart of his book is a sense that African governments have underestimated the importance of farming and how much knowledge and technology it requires.

"We thought we would leave it to the peasants and they would feed themselves," Juma said. "Agriculture has been one of the lowest areas of priority for African countries until recently, when they realized you could not just rely on food aid and, secondly, we realized that the peasants weren't feeding themselves."

His book says an agricultural revolution would transform the economies of Africa and calls on governments to put agriculture at the center of all policy decisions. The only way to rapidly train the army of engineers and scientists needed to drive growth in agriculture, he contends, is to set up new technical academies outside the university system.

Juma's optimism that Africa's agricultural failures can be quickly turned around is based on the continent's vast untapped resources. Only 4% of cropland is irrigated, and most farmers are too poor to buy fertilizers, high quality seeds or machinery without a helping hand. But he says there's room for vast improvement if governments provide investment in infrastructure, technology and education.

"Southern Sudan could feed all of Africa, and it's not in production at all," he said, referring to the vast, dusty region of Africa's largest country, which was torn by decades of war and civil conflict before separatists in the south signed a peace deal with the national government in 2005. "The reason it can't do that is poor infrastructure. Roads are crucial, energy and rural electrification."

Settlements in the south are usually a collection of far-flung huts, and women, who are married off young and denied education, must walk for hours to collect water.

"The ability to adapt to climate change will possibly be the greatest test of our capacity for social learning," Juma says in the book's final chapter. "Much of the current concern on how to foster development and prosperity in Africa reflects the consequences of recent neglect of sustainable agriculture and infrastructure as drivers of development."

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