Surviving food insecurity

This article originally appeared in Uganda’s New Vision newspaper.

By Warren Nyamugasira

To survive food insecurity, it is imperative that we plan and execute a home-grown long-term agricultural strategy.

John Nagenda in the Saturday Vision, of January 28, raised the question of what it takes to do so thus, “If we are seriously intent on radically changing Uganda’s future, to be based, first and foremost and for the foreseeable future on agriculture, on farming in its widest sense, and everything flowing from that, …the planning involved will task the most imaginative of our people in all their various fields of human endeavour”.

In searching for viable options beyond criticising what is not working, I find thoughts of Prof Li Xiaoyun of China Agricultural University, penned as an input into a campaign on boosting agriculture in Africa, instructive.

The winning formula seems to be “state-led, market-driven and farmer-based” agriculture development, implemented consistently through a deliberate learning process over a long period of time.

Li argues that continuity is critical to agricultural success and Africa has lacked that continuity.

Apparently, China and Africa started settled cultivation of rice and wheat; and sorghum and millet respectively around 7,000 BC.

However, while China had continuity in respect to rice and wheat growing, in Africa, the development of original food crops was seriously disrupted by colonialists in favour of cash crops to meet their own domestic needs.

Today, African households plant over half of all cropped area in imported plant species, principally maize, cassava, groundnuts, bananas, cocoa, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tea, coffee, cotton and rice.

Despite the efforts made to shift the production structure, cash crops are still a major source of export and foreign exchange earnings and therefore, the focus of attention, despite the cash crop-based production system neither bringing a fundamental change to our agriculture nor to our food security situation.

While new crops and technologies enriched agricultural diversity, the system was not well integrated with traditional production systems.

Traditional cash crops were mainly produced in large plantations with no linkage to smallholder farmers and innovation in food crops was mainly for commercial farms. As such, the colonial period had a significant impact on our agricultural structure, but very little impact on smallholder farming – the main units of our agricultural production.

Critically, the system led to significant lags in the development of smallholder-based technology for productivity improvement. In contrast, the evolution of Chinese agricultural structure has been continuously based on food crop production, enabling it to develop smallholder-based farming technologies in an incremental way over centuries.

Reforms also led to the establishment of agricultural universities, growth of national and local research institutions and the development of agro-inputs industries.

Packaged measures such as irrigation development, enhancement of farmer-centered agricultural research and extension and agro-input industry development have been consistently followed.

Of course, food security is not an end in itself but a means to multi-dimensional development. According to Li, although the strategy of concentrating on food crops had maintained minimum food security in China, initially rural and national economies were not well integrated. Capital accumulated from agriculture was mobilised towards heavy industry.

This led to farmers becoming poor and China becoming a ‘food secure poor country’. This had to be reversed by dramatically increasing the number of ‘township and village rural enterprises’ (over 30-fold from 6.05 million to 188.8 million), leading to employment for millions of rural people and opening the door for social and economic transformation.

According to Li, the role of the state administrative capacity to develop and implement policy and policy learning process was vital in achieving good performance. Realising the value of the agricultural sector to development, the Chinese Communist Party elevated agriculture to the status of a ‘public sector’, setting up different forms of the party’s agriculture and rural policy institutions, organised at the provincial, district and county levels utilising large numbers of the agricultural university and college graduates.

Furthermore, government emphasised building and utilising individual capacity. For example, almost all staff members within the agriculture system are college or university graduates; all senior leaders at provincial, district and county level had to attend full-time training for agricultural development at a university or college for six months to one year; and on-the-job training enables continuous learning.

For each new strategy and policy to be implemented, nationwide training is organised for all who are to lead its implementation. Awards for performance are given at different levels and job promotion is based on work experience at the grassroots level.

This comprehensive capacity that includes an institutional framework, political commitment, social and economic incentives, helps develop and implement effective policies.

External technical and financial advice and support, which recommend otherwise but have not helped in developing and sustaining home-made agricultural development processes cannot be the basis of an agricultural revolution fit for purpose.

Warren Nyamugasira is an independent consultant and development activist


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