“Take it to the farmer”. Those were the last words of Dr. Norman Borlaug, as remembered by his granddaughter Julie Borlaug in her opening speech at the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Nairobi. The man whose improved wheat varieties sparked the Green Revolution in Asia during the 1960s had dreams to take new and improved agricultural technologies to Africa to spark a similar revolution here, but he died with “unfinished business”.
That challenge now lies with us.
Data revolution key to solutions for nuanced African agriculture
I believe that if Africa can have a Green Revolution, central to it will be a data revolution.
That’s down to the fact that we live in such a diverse continent, with many different environments and cultures. It’s something to embrace and celebrate. But it also means that blanket solutions to agricultural challenges – like single new crop varieties – won’t work here. There is too much nuance. There is too much complexity. Instead, African agriculture needs site-specific solutions. And key to that is the collection, sharing, and analysis of farm data from all over the continent.
We need African farmers to monitor their farms like never before – recording rainfall, fertiliser use, the crop varieties they sow and the yields they produce, and sharing their results with scientists. We also need research organisations, universities, and governments to share the data they have generated over the years, with the global scientific community. By making data open access, we could trigger a bonanza for farmers.
Where data becomes intelligence
The CGIAR Big Data Platform will play an important role in this. When it launches in January 2017, it will be the largest convenor of big data experts in agriculture in the world. It will also collate and crunch data from organisations globally. Then thousands of computer modelers, GIS experts, and statisticians from the public and private sectors will mine it for patterns, trends, and anomalies.
The platform will be the place where data becomes intelligence, giving us unprecedented insights for improving agriculture. These will be shared directly with policymakers and governments so that intelligence becomes action on the ground. It will help farmers make better decisions about what to plant, when to plant and how to manage their crops in the best possible way. They will help make agriculture much smarter and much more precise.
And smart, precision agriculture is much more resilient to unpredictable weather, to pests and disease outbreaks and other challenges that affect African farmers every day. It will help take some of the huge risks out of farming, boosting food production, and helping protect soils and ecosystems. It will also ensure that agriculture is more responsive to new technologies, new practices, and emerging market opportunities. That will not only improve productivity and boost yields, it will enable farmers to grow and feed their own families more nutritious food.
Take the message to the farmer
Of course, when you improve smallholder farming in Africa, you also improve the lives of women. We need no reminding that they are the ones who put the food our tables here.
We’ve already seen how collecting and sharing high-quality data can help us achieve incredible, things, very quickly. In Colombia recently, rice producers saved millions of dollars by delaying planting until a dry spell had passed. This was the result of CIAT and the Colombian government working together with shared information and shared goals. I want to see these kinds of innovations and these kinds of impacts here in Africa.
We accept there will be challenges. But these shouldn’t stop us. When Norman Borlaug sent his improved wheat seeds to India, it wasn’t a smooth ride. They were held up at customs, denied permits and the first batch was entirely destroyed. But that didn’t stop him eventually getting them to farmers.
We should draw inspiration from this. It will require hard work, significant funding and global cooperation. But I firmly believe big data has the power to transform and revolutionise African agriculture. We need to seize the moment and take that message to the farmer.
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By Agnes Kalibata
The end of 2014 brought the conclusion of the African Union’s Year of Agriculture and Food Security. But most Africans work in some aspect of agriculture, and for them, every year is dedicated to agriculture and food security.
As they head out into the field today, they are likely giving little thought to meetings underway in South Africa focused on energizing the AU’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). But in many respects, these consultations may be as important to African farmers as the timely arrival of the rainy season. They have the potential to be game changing.
AU leaders have vowed to move quickly in 2015 to fulfill the promises enshrined in last year’s Malabo Declaration. That document reaffirmed the commitment of AU member states to allot 10 percent of national budgets to agriculture, double productivity on African farms, and cut post-harvest losses in half.
For the last eight years, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has been seeking out public and private sector partners committed to triggering a uniquely African Green Revolution, one that revolves around the smallholder farmers who produce the majority of what Africans eat. As AU leaders sit down to determine how they and partners can achieve their goals, we wanted to share a few of the lessons we have learned in places like Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Malawi, where many are now embracing the potential of agriculture to anchor a new era of sustainable and equitable economic growth.
- Double down on creating the conditions for smallholder farmers to adopt new inputs and practices through raising awareness and access to finance.The only way to sustainably and inclusively raise agricultural productivity is to ensure farmers are aware of the potential of new seeds, fertilizers, and basic agricultural practices that can more than double their yields. AGRA’s partners in national research systems have developed nearly 500 locally-adapted crop varieties that are just as competitive as anywhere in the world. Our partners and private equity firms, like INJARO and PEARL, have helped launch 90 seed companies that collectively constitute the largest producer of certified seeds in sub-Saharan Africa, and 80 fertilizer companies that can help blend, distribute, and sell fertilizers to smallholder farmers through market-led solutions such as local agro-dealerships. Adoption of these new productivity-enhancing solutions at scale could trigger an agricultural transformation in just two planting seasons; but without it, we will hardly get started, and we know adoption rates remains lower than anywhere in the world. The agriculture community must rally around organizations that are doing demonstrations with farmers to raise awareness, as well as group like Baba Ngona in Nigeria and MyAgro in Mali that have found models to reach smallholder farmers with a range of services, including inputs extension and financial services.
- Think outside the bank to consider new ways to deliver financing to farmers.
There are multiple opportunities to go beyond brick-and-mortar banks to help deliver financing that is still in short supply for smallholder farmers. For example, M-Pesa is reaching out to farmers with its popular mobile phone banking services. Microfinance institutions are partnering with commercial banks to provide new streams of affordable capital for agriculture ventures. And the MasterCard Foundation recently launched a campaign to expand financial services to rural areas of Africa through AGRA and other partners.
- Develop structured and efficient grain markets that are accessible for smallholder farmers.
As farmers produce more, they increasingly need access to markets for their goods. There are efforts underway in several countries to establish innovative but simple services that deliver new commercial opportunities to smallholder farmers. For example, newly established warehouse receipt systems in Ghana and Kenya are providing safe and secure facilities to store grain while farmers negotiate with potential buyers. National and regional commodity exchanges are needed to attract more buyers for this produce. One potential model is being developed by African Exchange Holdings (AFEX). It’s a new partnership working to combine warehouse storage options with commodity exchanges to serve smallholder farmers in the East African Community.
- Support efforts to match smallholder farmers with large-scale buyers.Smallholder farmers working land holdings that typically average only a few hectares or less can seem like a poor match for large buyers. Yet, over the last few years, farmer organizations in Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Rwanda, Burkina Faso, and Malawi have established aggregation centers where growers can pool their harvests to meet the demands of large institutional buyers, like the World Food Program. The WFP in some countries has demonstrated that often a market is the missing incentives. In West Africa, a major rice miller and a large brewery have both seamlessly integrated smallholders into their network of suppliers. GrowAfrica and the New Alliance initiative were set up to catalyze agriculture growth through private sector efforts and present a huge opportunity.
- Support women in agriculture to reap a large dividend.Most smallholder farmers and many new agribusiness leaders are women, and they have a significant role to play in Africa’s agriculture. In the Year of Women in Agriculture, this will be front of mind already for the AU and its partners, but we must put women first rather than include them as an afterthought.
Priority actions include developing and promoting improved seeds that take into account women’s preferred characteristics such as taste and cooking time; giving women farmers small trial packs of improved seeds and recommended fertilizer blends; and targeting increased inclusion by women farmers in producer groups to enhance their access to production finance and profitable markets. We need more support for groups that are putting women first in their development of solutions, as well as for others like the African Enterprise Challenge Fund that are putting in place targeted finance for women in agribusiness.
Decades of neglect of African agriculture has left crop yields faltering, soils ailing, and markets poorly developed. We are still a long way from overcoming these challenges, but there is a sense that the tide is turning, and the current agriculture landscape has institutions like AGRA, AFAP, GrowAfrica, and others, whose sole mission is to build on the technology base of others in CGIAR, IFDC, and private sector to ensure sufficient capacity for an African agricultural transformation.
Recently, Bill & Melinda Gates said they were confident that by 2030, Africa will be food secure. There is ample evidence today that if AU officials move aggressively with the investments they have promised, our resourceful farmers and agribusiness can make that prediction come true.
Agnes Kalibata is the President of the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and former Rwandan Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources.
Source: AFK Insider
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