While rich with opportunity, sub-Saharan Africa's agricultural sector is not living up to its full potential due to limited productivity and under-investment. Globally, development assistance for agriculture in poor countries has fallen from 18% of development assistance in the 1980s to less than 4% in recent years. Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa - most of them poor and farming small plots of land - are feeling the impact: over the last 25 years, agricultural incomes in the region have on average grown by less than 1% per year, the lowest rate in the world and significantly less than any other region.
Sub-Saharan Africa is already seriously off track in meeting the Millennium Development Goals to halve hunger and poverty by 2015. High food prices in local and global markets will likely delay this progress even further. Between 2005 and 2008, staple food prices of crops like corn and wheat rose by 83%. The food price crisis of 2010-11 pushed another 44 million people into poverty. Higher food prices mean families have to eat less food and less nutritious food while others have less money to spend on health and education, and could become more vulnerable to under-nutrition and related illnesses that kill over three million children per year.
The African agricultural sector needs long-term investment that will enable farmers to get goods to market, learn more sustainable and productive farming methods, and access improved and appropriate inputs and technologies that help farmers address the specific challenges they face. It is essential that these initiatives meet the needs of women and poor, smallholder farmers. For example, poor farmers, who in Africa are mostly women, are left out of farmer training services, which rarely are designed to meet their specific needs in the first place. Women also have difficulty accessing credit, land, information, and markets. Not having these essential components makes it difficult for these farmers to be productive and impedes their ability to hedge the risks inherent in farming.
The impact of investing in agriculture is potentially transformative, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where the sector employs nearly two-thirds of the population and accounts for an average one-third of GDP. Investment in agriculture can help producers and farmers in the developing world to earn their way out of poverty, increase exports, and provide communities and families with sustainable employment and incomes. The World Bank estimates that growth in the agricultural sector is 2.5 times as effective at reducing poverty as growth in other sectors. Importantly, if equal attention were paid to female farmers as is paid to male farmers, productivity in Africa could rise by more than 22%, putting more food on markets, income in the hands of women and food in the mouths of children. Addressing the challenge of food security in the developing world and facilitating economic productivity through agriculture will require short, medium, and long-term global efforts.
Donors need to scale up funding for agriculture investments that will make communities food secure and self-sustaining in the long-term. This includes investing in gender-sensitive technology research and innovation, and training male and female farmers to use new technologies to increase production. Improving poor farmers' access to local and regional markets, and investing in rural infrastructure like roads, electrification, storage facilities, and irrigation systems, are also vital elements for increasing long-term agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the short-term, emergency situations in developing countries continue to need an aggressive focus on providing culturally appropriate food aid, as well as an increase in the availability of agricultural inputs like fertilizer, seeds, and other tools to help farmers stimulate production. The provision of food aid and other inputs should be flexible, allowing these goods to be purchased locally rather than being shipped from donor countries, and enabling local markets to benefit from the production and sale of these goods.
In the medium-term, safety-net programs like cash-for-work and school feeding programs that focus on the poorest and most vulnerable can prevent families from descending further into poverty. Safety-net programs also enable people to remain healthy and productive contributors to the workforce.
The food and financial crises have helped to expose the two decades of underinvestment in the agricultural sector. In 2009, the G8 pledged $22 billion for agricultural development in developing countries and committed to principles to guide the quality, effectiveness, and accountability of their aid. Some countries have clarified their commitments, outlining how much is new money and constructing plans that will ensure that the principles are upheld.
The UK promised $1.72 billion, France $2.16 billion, Germany another $3 billion, Canada more than $1 billion and the European Commission a further $3.8 billion. The U.S. committed $3.5 billion over three years and developed a plan called Feed the Future. The plan includes bilateral agricultural assistance and contributions to a multilateral fund for agricultural development, to which the US has pledged $475 million.
However, time is running short for donors to fulfil their commitments. Now is the time to ensure that donors fulfil their commitments to fight hunger and prevent another global food crisis. We must make sure funding is well-invested and that the foundation is laid for future robust investments that deliver results.
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