An African Green Revolution: Can the Continent Become Agriculturally Self-Sufficient?

by |October 26, 2010

Jeff Sachs and Kofi Annan

What will it take for Africa to feed itself? Can the continent double its current crop yields and provide food not only for itself, but for export to outside markets?  How can African farmers become as productive as their global peers?

These and other questions were presented on October 11 by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who joined Jeff Sachs on Columbia’s campus to discuss Africa’s agricultural future.  (Click here for the article about the event from the Columbia Spectator).

With 100 million hectares of land under cultivation, Africa is well positioned to become part of the solution to global food shortages.  Talking about an African green revolution, Mr. Annan said that the continent needed to “focus not just on growing more food, but look towards connecting farmers to markets,” so that they can sell surpluses and be more self-sustaining. “Given the incentive, African farmers can produce,” said Mr. Annan.

Historically, Africa was bypassed by the green revolutions that happened in countries like India and Mexico, due to a lack of good seeds and water management, and no government support. “The World Bank said ‘no subsidies, no state support’…so the seeds were never adopted, the fertilizer was unaffordable, there was no uptake of modern varieties…without using fertilizer, as [Professor] Pedro Sanchez showed in his research, the soil nutrients were utterly depleted, and that became one of the main findings for the need to do something different,” said Professor Sachs. In India and Mexico, only one kind of crop was grown—it was a monoculture—but Africa has a wide variety of foods: cassava, yams, sorghum, and millet, to name some. “We need to produce all these varieties in quantities to feed our populations,” said Mr. Annan.

Most of the farming in Africa is done by smallholder farmers, who are mainly women. They produce about 70% of the food that the continent needs—but these farmers have hardly any help from the government. They are challenged by depleted soils, seeds that are too old, pests and disease, and unreliable rainfall. “They sink or swim on their own,” said Mr. Annan.

Through the Millennium Villages project, farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have learned new agricultural techniques that are allowing them to improve yields. (Photo courtesy of Millennium Promise)

In his role as board chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA), launched with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, Mr. Annan traveled to Mali in August 2010 and saw that farmers who were working with local scientists were seeing results—today they are moving to 4 tons per acre of sorghum versus just one ton per acre a short time ago. “When I look at what is happening in Mali, I have a feeling that we are now beginning to turn the corner,” said Mr. Annan. “[This is] Thanks to serious partnerships between African governments, donor governments, philanthropic organizations, and civil society all pooling our efforts to ensure that for the first time we can break the back of this problem and make Africa genuinely food and nutrition sufficient.”

The Earth Institute works closely with AGRA, with Jeff and Pedro Sanchez (head of our Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment program and co-founder of the Millennium Villages project) advocating internationally for more support for smallholder farms. Over the past year, the Tropical Agriculture program convened high-level conferences and symposia to foster discussion and debate among key scientific researchers around important topics related to sustainable agriculture and food systems, including the African Green Revolution.

As well, several crucial initiatives were launched or strengthened over the past year that enabled us to enrich our work in Africa now and into the future. We grew our work in sustainable agriculture thanks to a gift from Sime Darby, a multinational corporation that also supports our China 2049 project. The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and Principality of Monaco initiated a new partnership with us to help farmers in Mali secure a more stable livelihood while protecting the ecosystems where they live, and to advise the national government on a landmark new initiative to scale up the Millennium Villages integrated development strategy to 166 of Mali’s poorest districts.

Also, the new academic year began with a gift from Nestlé to boost food and nutrition initiatives in the Millennium Villages and inform global efforts to eliminate hunger and decrease malnourishment. These gifts and others are setting the stage for further research and work that might eventually become the basis for a center for global agriculture and food systems at the Earth Institute.