Sustainable Productivity for Resilience in African Food Systems

"Africa is the last frontier where agricultural productivity can transform the lives of millions of people", said Mr. Jai Shroff, CEO, UPL in contribution to the session on Sustainable Productivity for Resilience in African Food Systems. Indeed, for much of Africa, the food and agriculture sector is the largest employer and has most potential for economic growth. But this is dependent on a substantial boost in productivity, particularly among the smallholder farmers upon whom African food systems depend.

The picture that emerged was a need for a holistic food systems approach, where likeminded partners unite to drive impact, with sustainability at the very top of the agenda, and a focus on innovation and knowledge – and that ultimately everyone in and beyond Africa now has the responsibility to share their knowledge and capabilities with the continent.

Dr. Fadel Ndiame, Deputy President at AGRA, was passionate that the conversation needs to start with the farmer: “as the world is rethinking its food systems it is so important to listen to all stakeholders, particularly farmers as the custodians of our natural resources. We need to speak with them, not for them, as they are ready to speak for themselves and articulate their vision for a sustainable food system.”

His feedback from dialogue with farmers is that they need improved access to enabling technology, a conducive environment in terms of public policy, better delivery systems of services over a wider geography, proper financing from both public and private sectors, and access to timely and useful information to understand market signals.

The need for climate adaptation and resilience is also pressing in a world that feels increasingly uncertain: it is no longer ‘if’ the next crisis comes but ‘when’. The solution to resilience, argued Feike Sijbesma, Honorary Chairman, Royal DS, must be on local sourcing and local processing for the local consumer. Dr Ndiame spoke of the need for climate adaptation, giving the example of irrigation; smallholders which previously relied on rain have had to update their models due to unpredictable rainfall patterns, adopting measures such as wells, water budgeting, and solar technology.

Mr. Jai Shroff, CEO, UPL whose career has been spent directly working with smallholder farmers providing technologies to improve soil biological activity, to manage crop establishment, heat stress, disease, drought and flood resistance, spoke of the need for technology that provides a guaranteed uplift incentive for farmers and that does not increase their costs: “We need to reward and recognise farmers that adopt these sustainable practises, both through reduction of their costs and greater yield, but also we need a classification on food products in recognition of sustainable farming.”

In addition to up-skilling farmers through training, Prof. Joachim von Braun, Director, Center for Development Research (ZEF), stressed the importance of innovation and upgrading the African science and research systems, laying down the challenge for all African governments to commit to spending 2 per cent a year on science and innovation.

Better and reliable financing is also key: not just private finance, although this is critical, but also government finance (through improved tax systems for example). In this context, Hon. Bård Vegar Solhjell, Director General, NORAD, spoke of the challenge of political cycles which are short term in contrast to public sector reform which is a work of long-term change. This why new arenas such as the AGRA conference are so vital, he said, “to invite politicians into the realities of this area and to connect the key stakeholders.”