The potential of African agriculture is undoubtedly bright, but it will take more than just encouraging investment from large scale agri-players - of which Olam is one - into the continent. Food security depends on the four As - the essential combination of availability (is there enough), accessibility (in the right place), affordability (for the whole population) and adequacy (for a nutritious, balanced diet).
With populations booming and urbanising at an unprecedented rate without the supporting national infrastructure, fulfilment of the four As becomes an ever steeper uphill struggle. Investment must be focussed both on encouraging large-scale agriculture and unlocking the potential of smallholders – both will play a crucial part in feeding the World Bank’s estimate of over 9 billion people by 2050. To achieve this, there are eight key areas I believe policy-makers and development NGOs can focus on as we work together to pursue the four As of food security:
Availability of food:
1. Encourage priority lending and prioritise land rights to boost smallholder productivity
Access to finance to support investment in farms, improved crop varieties and fertiliser, is perhaps the greatest obstacle faced by smallholders. We see this first hand at Olam through our work with approximately 3.9 million smallholders globally, where we usually find ourselves bridging the gap through provision of interest-free finance to farmers. Policy-makers definitely need to take a stronger lead in encouraging priority lending by banks to farmers towards pre-financing their crop season at a discounted rate. Crucial to this is addressing the structure of land holdings so that smallholders legally own the land on which they farm, which can then act as collateral to raise loans or working capital to enable farmers to become self-sufficient. The first step on the road to poverty alleviation is asset ownership, in this case the land, followed by accessing finance to create economic opportunities around that asset ownership - in this case the farm.
2. Have a policy framework that facilitates links between large-scale agriculture firms and small-scale farmers
I have witnessed first-hand the benefits to smallholders when public policy lays the foundation for connecting small-scale producers to commercial farms, which then catalyses food crop production in the region. Here, I can draw on two Olam examples: in Nigeria our large-scale commercial rice farm for the domestic market links to 3,000 smallholders (growing to 16,000 by 2018), helping to increase yields through training and skills transfer, providing pre-finance and a ready market where the farmer sees his rice on sale. At our coffee plantation in Tanzania we are promoting diversification of income by training coffee outgrowers to inter-crop sesame and beans, and then purchasing their produce. Further upstream we are working with rice farmers to improve their yields and make irrigation systems more water efficient.
3. Encourage and support trade associations and marketing boards
For a more hands-on public sector approach, so common in the developed world, marketing boards are an example of how emerging market governments can consistently support and protect smallholder interests. Ghana’s Cocobod invests in research and development and formal distribution structures for cocoa saplings and agri-inputs such as fertiliser, as well as acting as regulator and guaranteed buyer. The Board also sets the buying price for cocoa in order to shield farmers from market volatility.
4. Avoid ad hoc farmer subsidy programmes
Investment is crucial but it requires a long-term view. We have seen artificial subsidy programmes start and then collapse, leaving the farmers uncompetitive. It is far better to invest in skills training, or research into drought-resistant seeds or varieties with greater nutritional value.
Affordability of food
5. Constantly and consistently review import duties on food ingredients
This is to ensure that they are adjusted as international commodity prices rise and fall to enable the national population to access competitively priced foods in the local market place.
Availability of food
6. Investment in agri-infrastructure is required by both governments and the private sector
This is a huge investment but it will mean fresh food getting around the country, rather than rotting en route. We estimate that Africa alone needs US$55 billion agricultural investment to ensure self-sufficiency and much of this is in infrastructure.
7. Influencers, policy makers, NGOs and the private sector must work to improve smallholder water efficiency and irrigation
In Ghana we have seen the Government take on the cost of setting up irrigation networks, such as the Kpong Irrigation Project and Tono Irrigation Project, which the smallholders then farm.
Adequacy of food
8. Explore the potential for partnerships between NGOs and private sector agribusiness to improve nutrition from the ground up
This may mean linking up to provide training modules for farmers on intercropping for balanced diets or effective techniques for growing nutritionally rich foods. One place to look for inspiration is within health sector collaborations. There are many examples of NGOs and public sector organisations, such as PharmAccess and GIZ, linking up with agri-business to deliver medical supplies and healthcare to remote communities – health caravans that travel throughout supply networks, providing medical care and education on infectious diseases. The medicine-between-the-Coke-bottles story really demonstrates this potential.
Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I am keen to hear your additions and thoughts on where effort should be concentrated. Working towards global food security and poverty alleviation shouldn’t necessitate a change in direction for any of the organisations involved. We do, however, need to address the challenges holistically, and this will take a cross-sector effort to support long term thriving, healthy and nourished rural communities across the whole landscape. By addressing the four As at the roots, these smallholders can truly become the unbreakable backbone of food security throughout the developing world.
Do you have an innovative idea for solving the four As of food security?
The inaugural Olam Prize for Innovation in Food Security is open for applications from individuals and teams carrying out pioneering research in this area. The US$50,000 prize will be judged and awarded in conjunction with Agropolis Fondation’s Louis Malassis science prizes. For more information and to apply before 15 January, please visit the Prize website here.