African heads of state and other leaders present at the 2018 African Green Revolution Forum gather for a photo at the conclusion of the event in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo credit: AGRA)
This year’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) held in Kigali, Rwanda (Sept. 4-8) was full of important news for Africa’s agriculture transformation. From the announcement of a new Fall Armyworm Research Consortium lead by CIMMYT to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) based in Nigeria being the first institution to receive the Africa Food Prize, the call to action for leadership was clear.
Equally important was the release by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) of the annual Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR) 2018, this year titled and focused on “Catalyzing Government Capacity to Drive Agricultural Transformation”.
As highlighted in the report’s introduction by John W. Mellor, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, the report focuses on how government can serve as a facilitator through policy and enabling environment to usher in agricultural transformation:
“The broad outlines of what governments throughout Africa need to do to achieve an agricultural transformation are known. With implementation, the countries of the continent will receive the major contributions to increased farmer’s income, large-scale reduction in rural poverty, overall economic growth, and economic transformation from a largely rural to a largely urban economy. What remains is to strengthen government capacities to implement the stated requirements. That is the purpose of this monograph.
Agriculture is a predominantly private sector activity, including farming, input supply and marketing businesses. However, the success of these private sector institutions, and hence of the agricultural transformation, is determined by national government institutions, investments, and policies. Favorable developments in these areas bring rapid agricultural growth and all its benefits. Poor government performance brings the reverse. The past norm in African countries has been poor governance with respect to the agricultural transformation. Poor government performance has been in part associated with past foreign aid efforts at reducing the size and scope of government.
Those policies fell harshly on the agriculture sector, which depends heavily on government actions, and thereby inhibited the growth of the small-scale commercial private sector that dominates the sector. Fortunately, more recently these foreign aid policies appear to have been reversed. However, the quality of governance continues to be poor in many African countries and its improvement is a central theme of this report.”
Here are the “Seven Key Recommendations” from AASR as highlighted by AGRA in their release of the report. The report, “offers a detailed exploration of the different levers governments must pull to unleash the potential of their smallholder farmers to deliver both food security and economic growth. They include:
Seven key recommendations for African governments to unleash the potential of agriculture
1. Communicate a clear and convincing vision of agriculture’s potential. The report finds that the work starts with political leaders who can make a compelling case that boosting productivity and incomes on smallholder farms can rapidly deliver food security and equitable economic development, all the while putting the country on a path to industrialization. Leaders in Ethiopia and Rwanda were credited with building a broad coalition of public and private sector support for farmers, along with donors and international aid institutions. The report also notes the importance of ensuring professionals or “technocrats” across government understand their roles in the transformation process and are ready to be held accountable for their performance.
2. Approach agriculture as a long-term relationship, not a brief affair. Like a good marriage, the report finds political will to support agriculture involves not just the readiness to embrace its potential, but also the ability to maintain a steadfast commitment for the long-term—and in the face of multiple challenges. For governments, the report observes that these challenges inevitably will include “poor civil service salaries and limited funding for operational expenses” that require fortitude to resolve. Headaches can involve a range of issues, like a backlog of seed certifications, funding from donors that goes unspent, land disputes that remain unsettled and poorly administered subsidy payments. The report notes that the inability to maintain an ardor for agriculture may explain why the success of past efforts in the region, like the “hybrid maize” revolution of the 1980s that was supposed to dramatically boost maize production or the “cassava transformation” promised for Western and Southern Africa, “were often not maintained over time.”
3. Link policies and investments to clear commercial opportunities for smallholder farmers. The report finds that agriculture investments achieve their best results when they are attached to specific “agriculture value chains”—a reference to all of the links involved in boosting production of an agriculture commodity and moving it from farm to fork. For example, maize is a commodity increasingly in demand in East and Southern Africa in part because government policies and investments have supported multiple areas—including research, extension services, land rights, financing, storage and trade pacts—with a focus on how they can work in concert to help boost production and sales of maize. Elsewhere in Africa, similar government efforts are focused on coordinating a suite of activities around commercial value chains for rice, cassava, coca, potato and livestock products.
The report notes that evidence from other countries indicates that the most effective agriculture transformation efforts concentrate on three or four commodities where smallholders can be the lead producers and where there is an opportunity to add value to the produce at it moves along the value chain, like processing maize into flour or even cassava into beer.
4. Foster an enabling business environment for agriculture. The report finds that most countries in sub-Saharan Africa lagged behind those in East Asia and Latin America in the World Bank’s 2017 “enabling the business of agriculture” or EBA score. That assessment looks at investments, policies and regulatory practices that can affect production and availability of things like improved seeds, fertilizer, farm machinery, and financing and impede or facilitate access to commercial markets. A survey of agriculture businesses in 11 African countries revealed a number of actions governments can take to attract more private sector investments. They include policies that encourage financing for agriculture-focused start-ups; better oversight of seed and fertilizer markets, where quality concerns and counterfeit products remain a problem; land reforms, particularly those that address challenges affecting women farmers; and increased investments in roads, power grids, irrigation and digital infrastructure serving farming communities.
5. Create farmer-focused institutions and initiatives empowered to work across government. The study laments aid policies of the 1980s and 1990s that promoted austerity in government spending and led to significant reductions in public sector extension services and research programs that continue to be felt today. In looking for approaches to jump start the agriculture transformation process, the report advises governments to look to Ethiopia and its decision in 2010 to set up its Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA). The independent agency has the political clout to move quickly to address anything impeding progress in the agriculture sector. Rwanda is lauded for its comprehensive Crop Intensification Program and for a willingness to experiment with different approaches to supporting farmers and revisit what’s not working. The report recommends that when creating an agriculture transformation coordinating body, make sure it maintains authority by reporting to the head of state.
6. ‘Team agriculture’ needs to expand its roster of players. The report emphasizes that success on the farm requires assistance far beyond the agriculture sector. For example, it requires reliable access to electrical power, roads, water, and ports and strong trade pacts. Almost all of the work to make this happen occurs outside of the agriculture ministry, pointing to the need for efforts that ensure everyone in government is prepared to play for ‘team agriculture’. The report points to examples where countries have created the necessary structures for this type of collaboration but neglected to secure the political support and operational budgets required to make them work. And it finds this aspect of the agriculture transformation process, perhaps more than any other, is where “political support at the Presidential or Prime Minister level is critical.”
7. Governments need to be accountable. The report takes a close look at the AU Biennial Review process for gauging governments’ progress toward meeting their CAADP commitments, which include increased spending on agriculture, boosting regional trade in agriculture commodities and helping farmers adapt to climate change. According to the review, there are currently 20 countries (out of 47) that are on track to achieve their commitments by 2025. The AASR notes that the Biennial Review could benefit from improving the consistency and quality of agriculture-related data and measures that can boost confidence in a system pegged to self-assessments. But overall, it lauds the reports as a significant advance toward transparency.