The food crisis: an African perspective

Dr Peter Sale

The food crisis is a terrible disaster facing many people around the world. There are widespread shortages of basic food staples, and this has led to rapidly escalating prices. Global rice stocks have fallen to 25-year lows and rice prices are at 20-year highs. Similarly we have almost reached a 30-year high in the price of wheat. The prices have increased for a number of reasons. These include drought in exporting countries, increased demand from India and China, population growth, demands from biofuels, and high oil and transport costs. The people who are really suffering are poor people in developing countries who spend more than 50 per cent of their income on food. Increasing food prices mean that they will reduce their food consumption and go hungry. Not surprisingly we hear of demonstrations, strikes and clashes in more than 20 countries from Senegal to Boliva.

People may well ask why food supply in many developing countries is so low. The reason is, in part, that agriculture in these countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, has suffered from long-term neglect. It has received minimal support from national governments and donor organizations over the last 20 years. Problems began in the 1980s when structural adjustment programs were imposed on many countries to manage their increasing debt levels. This resulted in the abolition of price support for farm products, input subsidies, and extension staff to advise farmers on improved farming practices. Support for poor farmers was not on the structural adjustment agenda. Later trade reforms and the spread of globalization meant that markets in developing countries were opened up to agricultural products (often cheap and subsidized) from developed countries, or supplied with food aid (when surpluses existed). These damaged the local agriculture.

There is an urgent need to transform and revitalize Agriculture in developing countries and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. This task will be challenging. The focus must be on the small-holder farmer, who makes up more than 75 per cent of the population. These impoverished farmers have very little land, and practically no resources. Their soils are among the poorest in the world as they have been severely depleted by years of cropping without replacing plant nutrients. The roads are in a very poor condition, and there are few agricultural extension specialists, or credit facilities, to assist the farmers. Nevertheless - improvements must be made if these farmers are to escape from poverty. They need to grow more crop and then sell their surplus into stable markets. The goals, for increased food production and food security, leading to a moderation in food prices, and poverty alleviation for the smallholder farmers - are so vitally important.

Efforts are being made and investment is occurring. One initiative is the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which is chaired by Kofi Annan and supported by the Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations. So far in 2008 there have been 40 research grants, totaling more than US$33 million, so the funds are flowing strongly. There will be on-going investments in breeding new crop varieties, training agricultural specialists, improving soil fertility, water use efficiency, markets, market information systems, crop storage, and transport infrastructure. The European Union and other donor countries are also committed to investing in African agriculture to improve food security.

The task of improving the livelihoods of small-holder African farmers is very challenging, but not impossible. I gained some feel for this when I spent 3 months in east Africa in 2007 where I became involved in some grass-roots assistance work in a village in central Uganda. A group of women wanted to grow matoke bananas, which are steamed to provide an exceptionally popular dish in the country. The matoke market is very strong: one large bunch would pay for the school fees for one child for one school term. The women just did not know how to grow these bunches.

So we worked together as a group, accessing local nutrients such as wood ash, cow/goat dung, cow/goat/human urine, Tithonia shoots ( a nutrient-accumulating plant), plant mulch and water from nearby Lake Victoria. Each lady was able to set up 3 banana stems with nutrients, mulch and water, and 3 control stems, that were grown in the normal way. I then returned to Australia but kept in touch with the village. Their news is very positive. The matoke has grown well with the recent rains. The group has grown from 6 to 10 women. A number have expanded their small plantations, and they are excited about their future. And it will be exciting - if they can increase their supply of nutrients, mulch and water.