The future of African farming? Regionally integrated, climate-smart, public-private and properly-financed

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      On Monday June 22nd, a team from ECDPM will attend the conference Future of farming and food security in Africa organised by FoodFIRST in Utrecht (The Netherlands). It’s an important meeting, with both high-level and multi-stakeholder participation, preceding a number of key global policy-making events. I hope there will be tangible proposals on how to make African farming more integrated within Regional Economic Communities (RECs); environmentally sustainable; supported by inclusive public-private-partnerships (PPP); and more oriented to smallholders and their access to credit.

      Regionally integrated

      Developing regional markets and promoting investment through regional food value chains are increasingly recognised as crucial for African food security, as shown in the commitments by African Union Heads of State in the Malabo Declaration. Africa is a net importer of food, with patterns of agricultural export largely characterised by few traditional commodities, while national markets are too small to bring about all the transformations in African agriculture that are needed. Faster regional integration, as a gradual step to more competitiveness on global markets, will be key for Africa to be able to eradicate hunger and to respond to the growth opportunities related to the fast increasing food demand, both internationally and within Africa. The WTO's tenth Ministerial Conference in Nairobi in December 2015 (WTO’s first ever Ministerial Conference held in Africa) should start from there, if it wants to be an important milestone with the capacity of global trade rules to  serve agriculture development better and with food security goals.


      With almost 60 percent of the world's uncultivated arable land on the African continent, and the growth of middle classes all over the world, African countries have huge potential to increase food production, but need to do that while preserving the environment. Abstracting from debates on definitions and “one size fits all” approaches (e.g. “agroecology versus sustainable intensification”), if Africa wants to feed itself and the world sustainably over time, it requires climate-smart farming, and a mix of agriculture approaches that can both attract the much needed investments while protecting and harnessing the various biodiversity systems, thus addressing also climate change and resource scarcity problems. Some believe that industrial farming and heavy use of chemical inputs are the only way to produce enough to feed the growing population, while alternative approaches focus on family farming, multicropping and biodiversity protection. But a polarised debate is not going to help: there is no “one size fits all”. Every African country will have to choose its own agricultural transformation model, by involving all stakeholders in policy-making (including family farmers) towards a balanced approach combining increased productivity, production and trade while building adaptive capacity and reducing greenhouse gas emissions (by using ecological resources more efficiently, e.g. manure and crop residues, agroforestry, etc). The UN Climate Change Conference in Paris (COP21) in December will be key to promote climate treaties that make economic activities and food systems more sustainable, and it will hopefully provide a window of opportunity particularly for Africa to use those international frameworks to make its agriculture more climate-smart.


      African farming also needs to make better use of public-private approaches because a multidimensional challenge like food security should be addressed by public and private stakeholders together. Non-state-actors should be in the lead, since farmers, traders, investors and retailers are so important in determining what we eat, with governments and donors in a supporting role (i.e. providing public goods). This discourse is very fashionable within the processes to support African agriculture, but on the ground it remains to be demonstrated that PPPs for food security are commercially sustainable and scalable. Most existing examples are still in an early phase, strongly motivated by ‘corporate social responsibility’, and it is not clear yet if those models can be upscaled to serve base-of-the-pyramid consumers in a profitable and sustainable way. To build partnerships that benefit all actors along the value chain and avoid tensions (e.g. land grabs), PPPs need a stronger dimension of mutual accountability, for both public and private actors’ investments. The Responsible Agriculture Investment Principles recently adopted within the Committee on World Food Security should be especially useful for that. And hopefully the Sustainable Development Goals to be launched in September in New York will promote a stronger and clearer role of the private sector for development, thus modernising development cooperation approaches globally.


      A particularly important component of a stronger and more inclusive agricultural sector in Africa will be the possibility for smallholders and other small entrepreneurs to have better access to credit. Ultimately, smallholder farmers are both the largest investors and largest market for primary agricultural products in Africa, so financial instruments and current practices by banks and other financial institutions should be adapted urgently to match the needs and situation of smallholders. As demonstrated at the recent Grow Africa Investment Forum I attended, there is increasing capital available for agriculture in Africa (in the form of both equity and debt financing, by both local and foreign investors). Often however, projects fail due to lack of investment management capacity and insufficient knowledge of the fundamental market risks and of the entire food value chain. More importantly, small farmers and entrepreneurs are often excluded from those financial mechanisms because they are seen as “too risky”. Private investors need to offer longer term credit to small players, while governments and donors provide more “patient seed capital” and financial capacity building to farmer organisations and cooperatives. The International Conference on Financing for Development, this July in Addis Ababa, should help create a policy environment for providing more capital to the key development actors on the ground, and this should target in particular the weakest players in agricultural value chains.

      Key messages towards the upcoming global policy-making events

      The FoodFIRST conference is a great chance to discuss the four areas of improvement I sketched above and to agree on related strong messages to be brought to the attention of global decision-makers in Addis, New York, Nairobi, and Paris. The high-level representation in Utrecht (including the FAO Director General, the Head of the African Development Bank and the Dutch Minister for Agriculture), as well as 350 participants from several companies and farmer organisations active in Europe and Africa, make this prospect for actual follow-up a real one. ECDPM will partner with FoodFIRST in coming months to contribute to this, including by deepening knowledge and policy-dialogue opportunities around more regionally integrated, climate-smart, public-private and properly-financed farming systems in Africa.   The views expressed here are those of the authors, and not necessarily those of ECDPM.
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