- A vast stretch of African savannah land that spreads across 25 countries has the potential to turn several African nations into global players in bulk commodity production, according to a study published by FAO and the World Bank.
The book, entitled Awakening Africa’s Sleeping Giant - Prospects for Commercial Agriculture in the Guinea Savannah Zone and Beyond, arrives at its positive conclusions by comparing the region with northeast Thailand and the Cerrado region of Brazil.
The study finds that at the moment only ten percent of the Guinea Savannah zone, a vast area of around 600 million hectares of land from Senegal to South Africa, with 400 million hectares suitable for farming, is actually cropped.
The Cerrado and northeast Thailand, like the Guinea Savannah both had physical disadvantages; abundant but unreliable rainfall patterns, poor soils and a high population density in the case of Thailand; and remoteness, soils prone to acidity and toxicity and low population in the case of the Cerrado, said the study.
In both countries, successive governments created the conditions for agricultural growth “characterized by favourable macroeconomic policies, adequate infrastructure, a strong human capital base, competent government administration, and political stability,” according to the publication.
Indeed, Africa is better placed today to achieve rapid development in agriculture than either northeast Thailand or the Cerrado when their agricultural transformation took off in 1980, the study argues.
There are a number of reasons for this: rapid economic, population and urban growth providing diverse and ample domestic markets; favourable domestic policy environments, improved business climates in many countries; increased foreign and domestic investment in agriculture; and the use of new technologies.
If development is to be equitable and social conflict is to be avoided, then a smallholder-led agricultural transformation such as the one undergone by Thailand is a better model than that which happened in Brazil with large-scale farming led by wealthy farmers, the study finds.
“Commercial agriculture in Africa can and should involve smallholders to maximize growth and spread benefits widely,” said Michael Morris, Lead Agricultural Economist with the World Bank in Madagascar.
“Large-scale mechanized production does not offer any obvious cost advantages, except under certain very specific circumstances and is far more likely to lead to social conflict,” he said.
The study says the experience of Thailand and Brazil shows that when smallholder farmers are involved in development, then poverty reduction is greater and local demand stimulated.
It continues that in the case of low-value staples however, it is unlikely that land-constrained households farming 1-2 hectares or less will be able to earn sufficient income to exit poverty. The emerging pattern of commercial agriculture in the African Guinea Savannah therefore must provide diversification opportunities for producers of low-staples, the publication argues.
Changing the use of land in the Guinea Savannah to agriculture will inevitably bring some environmental costs, the study found, but says that agriculture can also benefit the environment.
“Commercialisation of agriculture through intensification can reduce environmental damage by slowing the spread of agriculture into fragile and/or environmentally valuable lands,” said Mr Morris.
“However intensification brings with it risks of environmental damage through destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides,” he added.
As agricultural intensification takes place, governments must take care to monitor environmental impacts and implement measures to reduce or avoid damage. “Fortunately, there is a wealth of experience from other countries on which to draw,” said Guy Evers, Africa Service Chief in the FAO Investment Centre.
The publication is a shortened version of a larger study drawn up by officials from the World Bank with technical advice from FAO experts and funding from Italy.
According to the new estimates released by FAO at the weekend, world hunger is projected to reach a historic high in 2009 with 1 020 million people going hungry every day.
FAO said the most recent increase in hunger is not the consequence of poor global harvests but is caused by the world economic crisis that has resulted in lower incomes and increased unemployment. This has reduced access to food by the poor, the UN agency said.
"A dangerous mix of the global economic slowdown combined with stubbornly high food prices in many countries has pushed some 100 million more people than last year into chronic hunger and poverty," said FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf. "The silent hunger crisis - affecting one sixth of all of humanity - poses a serious risk for world peace and security. We urgently need to forge a broad consensus on the total and rapid eradication of hunger in the world and to take the necessary actions. The present situation of world food insecurity cannot leave us indifferent," he added.
Poor countries, Mr Diouf stressed, "must be given the development, economic and policy tools required to boost their agricultural production and productivity. Investment in agriculture must be increased because for the majority of poor countries a healthy agricultural sector is essential to overcome poverty and hunger and is a pre-requisite for overall economic growth."
On the other hand, Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said many of the world's poor and hungry are smallholder farmers in developing countries, yet they have the potential not only to meet their own needs but to boost food security and catalyse broader economic growth.
“To unleash this potential and reduce the number of hungry people in the world, governments, supported by the international community, need to protect core investments in agriculture so that smallholder farmers have access not only to seeds and fertilisers but to tailored technologies, infrastructure, rural finance, and markets," said Mr Nwanze.
He said for most developing countries there is little doubt that investing in smallholder agriculture is the most sustainable safety net, particularly during a time of global economic crisis.
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