Smart investments in agricultural innovation can propel Africa towards food security

With almost one in four Africans going underfed last year, how can the continent's food systems be transformed in order to nourish a growing population?

Opinion by

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Image : Riccardo Niels Mayer / Adobe Stock

Transforming food systems to reduce hunger and poverty in a climate crisis means solving the perplexing equation of a rising population that must be nourished and sustained with diminishing resources.

Africa is expected to feed an estimated 2.5bn people by 2050 while simultaneously contending with increasingly adverse growing conditions. Added to the challenge is the fact that hunger regressed to levels not seen since 2005 last year, with almost one in four going underfed.

The brightest minds – in Africa and around the world – have devoted decades to squaring this circle through creative and ambitious innovations at the farm, retail and policy level that increase both productivity and sustainability. The continent has many of the right ingredients including a diverse landmass, and plentiful natural and human resources. A key missing link is delivery at scale to ensure science-based solutions reach all those who need them.

With long-term investment in nimble, responsive and scalable science and research, African countries can simultaneously respond to three core needs across its food systems: recovery, regeneration and action – the themes of this year’s Africa Food Systems Forum.

Recovery is the priority

Recent setbacks have undermined African food security and so recovery must be the immediate priority. Without first recovering, we cannot hope to get ahead of hunger and build the resilience needed to withstand future shocks and stresses.

This means an increased commitment to rolling out existing, proven innovations, such as improved varieties of staple crops that are less susceptible to pests, diseases and climate extremes. These developments also have huge potential to boost output, bring hunger under control and perhaps even start to contribute to reducing poverty and the runaway cost of living.

Building on CGIAR research, AGRA has funded programmes with national agricultural research systems (NARS) across 18 countries to advance local adaptation of improved high yielding crop varieties and better soil fertility to strengthen the ability of crops to cope with some of these challenges and put African producers on a level footing with other farmers around the world. And CGIAR, through the African Development Bank’s Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) programme, has delivered climate-smart varieties of wheat to 12m farmers in 27 countries in just two years.

Between CGIAR delivering new crop technologies, and AGRA’s work building stronger systems for input delivery, SME capacity and policy environments, the assets and models for scaling proven solutions across the continent are in our midst. What we need to do now is urgently grow partnerships with like-minded people and work with governments to allow every farmer to close the productivity gap.

Natural resources must be regenerated

As well as recovering, African food systems can – and must – look to regenerate, both at an environmental and a political level.

With 65% of Africa’s land already considered degraded, science and innovation are essential to also restore natural resources while supporting agricultural productivity. For example, building resilient irrigation systems to preserve water and improving the sustainable management of livestock can help rather than harm soil health and biodiversity.

And scientific ingenuity can also provide the data and insights that allow policymakers as well as farmers to act with greater accuracy and confidence. Digital tools such as the RiceAdvice app launched in Mali provide farm-level forecasts and advice on how, when and what to plant. This has benefited more than 70,000 farmers, almost a third of whom were women, with yield increases of up to a ton per hectare. Similarly, emissions monitoring systems can provide the understanding needed to reduce agricultural emissions, build resilience and end the cycle of crisis response.

Strategic investments are essential

Finally, and most importantly, African food systems need urgent, evidence-based action enabled by strategic investments. Accelerating the transformation of food systems needs governments to act with the urgency commensurate with the challenges at hand. But governments will also need all the support they can mobilise from partners, and must therefore foster conducive environments in which the private sector can invest in the science and innovation needed to support African agriculture. This is one sector in which no single institution, business or government can deliver the required results alone. 

As African political, academic and business leaders gather in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania for this year’s Africa Food Systems Forum, we have the chance to channel renewed investment and support towards deploying the most promising solutions to make up ground and close the hunger gap as efficiently and quickly as possible.

It is also a chance to redouble commitment to ongoing agricultural research that continues to evolve alongside climate and market fluctuations and best equip Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers for the challenges of the future.

With more funding in research and innovation and stronger collaboration in delivering tested solutions to farmers and businesses, Africa can harness the power of agricultural innovation to solve the wicked problem of food insecurity, feed itself better and build the resilience needed to realise Africa’s century.

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Agnes Kalibata

Agnes Kalibata is President of AGRA.

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda

Lindiwe Majele Sibanda is Chair, CGIAR Systems Board.