Five years later, farmers are still trying to make it

Dejene Hirpa, general manager of the Becho-Woliso farmers cooperative, examines chickpeas with local farmers in rural Ethiopia

Dejene Hirpa, general manager of the Becho-Woliso farmers cooperative, examines chickpeas with local farmers in rural Ethiopia

I just spent six months in Johannesburg and was lucky enough to visit farms across the continent, from Ethiopia to Malawi to South Africa. I sampled raw chickpeas and shelled freshly harvested maize and met lots of farmers – all of whom were just trying to grow enough food to feed their family and send their kids to school – without sufficient help from the government.

But farmers in Africa face tough challenges: they pay relatively high taxes, get little support from local governments, use ancient tools, and depend on rainfall to water their crops. That’s why it was especially disheartening when food prices skyrocketed in 2007 and 2008 and pushed tens of millions of families into extreme poverty.

However, governments like Ethiopia, which invested in grain reserves and social safety nets, were more resilient to the adverse effects of food price volatility. 

Fortunately, donor governments like the United States, Japan and Germany, among others, stepped up and contributed $22 billion to improve food security and make sure farmers get the support they need.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of that commitment, the L’Aquila Food Security Initiative (AFSI). It’s truly remarkable given the previous decades of underinvestment in agriculture and Africa’s farmers.

However, funding for AFSI expired in 2012 and there hasn’t been any interest from donors in renewing these commitments. It shouldn’t take another food price crisis for the world to pay attention to African agriculture.

Beyond providing new pots of money to go towards developing agriculture, AFSI also established a set of principles in Rome – one of which shifted the paradigm on aid.

For decades, the dark side of aid had a beggars-can’t-be-choosers type of dynamic, which forced African leaders to bend to the will of the donor governments. But this arrangement wasn’t always effective and didn’t address what Africans needed most.

Thus, the idea of “country ownership” started receiving more attention and shaped CAADP, an African-led program, and a promise called the Maputo Declaration that put African leaders back in the driver’s seat with support from donors.

The countries that invested in agriculture have made strong progress. Ten years since the beginning of CAADP, countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia have slashed poverty rates and hunger. But these trailblazers have been the exception, not the rule, as most countries have ignored agriculture and the majority of their citizens who work in the sector.

The good news is that agriculture in Africa has huge upside – the World Bank predicts it could be a $1 trillion industry (yes, you read that right) by 2030, and last week, African leaders gathered in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea and pledged to renew the Maputo Declaration, improve the CAADP process, and adopt new ambitious targets such as doubling agricultural productivity and dramatically reducing childhood stunting levels.

While all of this is exciting, the big challenge is to make sure the promises made in the Malabo Declaration are kept, that farmers share in the spoils of a potentially trillion-dollar industry, and that the right steps are taken to avoid another disaster like the 2008 food crisis.

The stage is set for African citizens and organizations like ONE to hold leaders accountable to their promises and create a world where every farmer has the chance to make it.