Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

No band aid solutions for food insecurity in Africa.

Africa is still the poster child of hunger and malnutrition on the planet. In fact, Africa is still the poster child of a lot of ills of the world actually. Here is a thought experiment. Humour me. Close your eyes and think of Africa. Allow random images of the continent to cross your mind uninterrupted. Go on, stop reading for 10 seconds and do it. Done? Now give yourself a high-five if those images didnt include a starving child (most likely with a distended stomach, and a couple of flies buzzing around). Another high-five if you didn't see disease and death (HIV and Ebola, if you have a flair for the dramatic). Yet another if those images didn't include war and rape. These are the images that are flighted to represent Africa all around. Unfortunate as it is, thats how it is.

Recently, I have been following a debate on the Band Aid song by a guy called Bob Geldof. He is supposed to have been famous at some time in recent history. I confess I only got to know about him through this controversy. Any way, this here guy wrote a song as part of his anti-poverty efforts in Africa called “do they know its Christmas” back in 1984 and got some popular musicians of that time to sing it to raise money. A remake of it has been done recently in response to the Ebola situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has some catchy albeit ridiculous lyrics that echo those unfortunate images of Africa. See video below and keep an ear out for these lyrics;

There's a world outside your window,
And it's a world of dread and fear,
Where the only water flowing,
Is the bitter sting of tears,
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom,
Well tonight were reaching out and touching you,
And bring peace to Africa,
Where nothing ever grows,
No rain nor rivers flow,

I have no interest in the lyrics myself, they do not surprise me. I suppose they serve the intends of a song writer's dramatic effect by following the widely held African gloom and doom narrative. Anyway, enough people have challenged Geldof and his ever changing “band of aid” over this. My trigger comes not from the lyrics (although i am certainly not a fan) but rather from a compulsive need to understand the food security challenges in Africa that lead to such songs being written.

Africa has the majority (27%) of the world's undernourished 800 million people because the food systems on the continent are failing to sustain adequate food (quantity and quality) for all on the continent. How did we get here? Here is one of the multitude of reasons why. Lets start with the 1980s, the time period that Geldof and his merry band of “salvation” sang their song. This was a time when the continent was indeed hit by a number of droughts (maybe thats where they were getting the illusion of “nothing ever grows”). In the 1980s, a shift in food systems and agricultural policies occurred. This shift was towards liberal food systems anchored on international trade with restrictions on protectionism. The shift was a response to a reactive ideology on food security brought about by the world food crisis of the early 70s. After the world food conference of 1974, food security was premised on stabilising world food supply and prices and not necessarily on local food self sufficiency. The results of these ideological changes were policies that supported a system of global trade and control of food systems. Food shifted from primarily a source of nutrition as it should be, to a commodity of trade foremost.

If African countries were to be competitive under this new regime of global policy, they needed support. This made sense at the time because we had a continent that either had newly minted countries or countries still fighting wars of liberation from colonisation. As such these countries were not stable enough to be globally competitive, had poor infrastructure and a weak hold on the exploitation of their natural resource base. In comes aid. Yes Mr. Geldof, aid (something you should know a lot about...insert sad poverty song here...). The aid was conditional on commitments to Structural Adjustment Programmmes (SAPs) that demanded that African countries liberalise their agricultural system among other economic activities. This exposed a weakly anchored continent to well established European and American agriculture and economies. From this time, large scale private owned production systems became the drivers of agricultural contribution to food and economic growth through export and agro- industry centered agriculture. Although this ensured an increase in private capital into the food sector, expansion of food choices available to consumers, boosting global food supply, it disenfranchised the poor in Africa by marginalising small scale family farmers. During this period (1980-2000), growth per capita of food production in Africa only grew by 2%, compared to 11% post 2000 and the import-export ratio of agricultural in Africa rose to 1.38 compared to 0.34 in 1961.

So Mr. Geldof, before you write another sad African “salvation” song, you need to realise that aid is not the answer to a lasting solution to Africa's food insecurity challenge. Aid, especially your kind of reactive aid offers only a “band aid” temporary reprieve. Structural Adjustments are part of the problem and structural transformation will form part of the solution. Certainly not the structural changes suggested in the 1980s when you wrote and asked your  friends to sing about dry rivers and stinging tears. Try songs about getting a fair deal for African produce on the international market. Better yet, songs about the rights of Africans to socially and culturally appropriate foods. While you are at it, write songs about the rights to protect local African farmers from the dumping of heavily subsidised foreign agricultural produce. Craft hooks around responsible investments and putting a stop to widespread corporate land grabs on the continent. If this sounds boring and lacking a dramatic “dread and fear” angle, thats because it is. But this is partly what Africa needs, not sad or alarmist kumbaya lyrics on pull-at-your-heart-strings backdrop music.

Most importantly, Africa doesn't really need a “savour band”. A shift is occurring. There is widespread understanding of the harm of aid and its accompanying conditionalities. There is a solid appreciation of the harm of neo-liberal policies on agriculture and food security on the African continent. From the early 2000s, agriculture and food systems in Africa have begun to change to ideas that support the right of local populations to determine the kinds of food they farm and consume, superceeding global food demand pressures. Focus is shifting towards household and individual entitlements, something that was largely ignored by the trade and agro-industry centred neo-liberal trade ideas. A shift towards the implementation of this self sufficiency ideology, is underway, something that was planned for but difficult to achieve during the pre-1980 period. African agriculture requires investments that do not undermine these rights and ideas, appropriate technology transfers and innovations, a wholesome science led structural transformation. If we must sing (I do hope we dont have to), and we are sure that the songs that have been sung so far arent working (given we are singing the exact same song 30 years in, albeit for a different cause), why not change to a new tune. A tune that will rally support for lasting food security and sovereignty solutions in Africa, not "band aid" responses.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Feeding a growing population in Africa: Playing Devils’ advocate

25 years of sustained research and the IPCC continues to state with ever increasing confidence that climate change is here and here to stay. The worry now (if at all you are worried) is not on whether climate change is occurring but rather on how to mitigate and/or adapt. If you live in a low income country in sub Saharan Africa and you like to eat, this climate change thing could certainly be of interest to you. Yields of food crops of all kinds (maize, sorghum, soya, groundnuts, wheat etc.) are expected to decline by up to 30 % as a result of climate change, as early as the 2030s in some placesjust in case you had it in mind to entertain “but I may just be dead and long gone by then” ideas. As for the urban folk, before you decide this isn’t your concern at all, bear in mind that you may end up having to part with a larger chunk of your ever shrinking (what with increasing fuel prices and all) pay checks as food prices rise sharply, driven by shortages. 

 Populations in low income countries in SSA are expected to double in the 21st century. Land for producing food is not going to increase (even if it could, that would be ill advised, given that land clearance for agriculture contributes significantly to greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs)). Degraded soils are not expected to improve. In short, food producers in the poorest region of the world are expected to feed doubling populations with the same increasingly shrinking and degraded lands under uncertain future climates. That’s quite an ask.

As if the task wasn’t hard enough, it is the most vulnerable food producers from which these regions look to provide future food supplies, small holder farmers. Small holder farmers provide food and livelihoods to a large proportion of Africa’s population, 70% of the population These farmers have performed this task with varying degrees of success with limited technologies and poor infrastructure, under poor service provision and harsh policy environments. On average, crop yields in Africa have been stagnant for decades (see figure for maize yields below). Clearly the prospects for future food supply with the added challenge of a changing climate could easily be percieved as unpromising.
In 1960, maize yields in Africa and Asia were the same. Over the years, with adoption of improved technologies (fertiliser, varieties, cultivation methods etc), maize yields in Asia have increased to 4.5 tons/ha while yields in Africa have on average remained constant.

The cynical among us would probably be thinking “oh well it seems this agriculture thing is quite hopeless, why not engage in some other forms of livelihood activities apart from agriculture?” As it turns out, gross domestic product (GDP) growth from agriculture is almost 3 times more effective in reducing poverty than growth from any other sectors of the economy. Furthermore, agriculture contributes up to 30 % to GDP in many countries in Africa, such that neglect of the agricultural sector could have significant negative impacts on economies in Africa and by extension will increase food insecurity and poverty levels. Sadly, or not (depends who is saying) we are stuck with agriculture if we entertain any hopes of lifting large populations in Africa out of poverty. How do you go about lifting large proportions of a population out of poverty via agriculture with unfriendly future prospects?

Green revolution? The green revolution through scientific breakthroughs and improved access to vital inputs greatly improved agricultural production in Asia. It didn’t pick up in Africa then (1960s) and five decades later its still pretty much a non-event on the continent, baring islands of success. Some would say that boat has long since sailed and Africa is standing on the dock unsuccessfully trying to call it back due social, political and economic constraints. World Food Prize winner Gebisa Ejeta writing in “African Green Revolution Needn’t Be a Mirage” figures it is still achievable. Ray of light?

Production system overhaul? Some suggest some sort of an overhaul of the current food production system or at least the use of “radical methods” such as molecular techniques, saline water farming systems etc. as a solution to improving agricultural production. Researchers and development organisations are already struggling to get African farmers to adopt “simple and cheap” well tested strategies (Conservation Agriculture anyone?). Maybe, let’s start there before we get ahead of ourselves with the out-of-the-box ideas? Some wise guy once said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. Could modernising and scaling up already existing “simple” local innovations do the job better?

Investment and Commercialisation? Regularly it has been suggested that if we could make small holder farmers move from semi-subsistence to the more profitable commercial production systems, a large chunk of the ills of a small holder dependent food system will be cured. How do you go on to invest in a production system that is so prone to climate variability and change among other challenges? Do I hear irrigation and insurance systems? Well, all is well and good with small holder irrigation and insurance until you realise that for a future we are uncertain about, large inflexible investments may not be prudent especially when you consider that small holder farmers seldom own collateral or the land that they draw their livelihood from. There is also the volatile global food market and cheap higher quality heavily subsidised European agricultural product to consider as well. If you were a money man, would you be making this sort of investment? 

After all is said and done, small holder productivity is not the end and all of African future food supply woes. We still have post production hick ups to deal with (post harvest storage, transportation, markets, policy etc.), conflict (war and instability), corporate land grabs, corruption, diseases…I could go on and on. Whatever direction the continent ends up taking to promote food security, what is quite apparent so far is that if you live in sub Saharan Africa, a great part of your future food depends on a production system that has historically not performed too well, is the most prone to environmental (climate change and variability), social, political and economic pressure and the least capable to cope and adapt. Some prospects eh? Cynicism aside...there are a multitude of examples that demonstrate the potential and ability of the continent to meet its food security needs in the present and the future, talk Malawi and Ethiopia. How can these shining examples be used to shine light for a better more promising future for food on the continent?