Science is the way forward

2011-11-26 15:08

Nothing better illustrates the crucial role that science must play in farming in Africa than the contrasts in agricultural productivity between our continent and the rest of the world.

Food productivity has increased globally by 140% in recent decades, but the figures for sub-Saharan Africa over the same period show a fall.

What these dismal figures underline is how Africa’s agriculture has been cut off from the scientific advances that have transformed yields in many other parts of the globe.

We can see the impact of this neglect across our continent, where a third of people in sub-Saharan Africa are chronically hungry, the highest proportion in the world.

Hunger and malnutrition are a catastrophic brake on progress, damaging every aspect of lives.

This feeds into the wider economy and society, with increased healthcare costs, poorer productivity and economic growth.

As if this isn’t bad enough, climate change is making these challenges worse. Africa’s citizens may have done little historically to add to the carbon emissions in our atmosphere, but that does not mean our continent will escape its impact.

Our experience in Ghana shows how harnessing science can help transform agricultural productivity.

 By giving farmers access to the latest scientific knowledge and, crucially, providing them with the support to make full use of it, the results can be truly remarkable.Cocoa production, a vital cash crop for Ghana, has been virtually tripled in a decade.

There have been dramatic increases, too, in cereals and staples. Within a decade, Ghana went from a position where it failed to produce enough food to feed its own people to producing a healthy surplus for export.

As we have seen in many other parts of the world, the transformation in agriculture is a powerful driver for wider progress.

Ghana became the first African country to meet its millennium development goal of halving poverty seven years ahead of schedule.While this dramatic improvement in Ghana’s agriculture is perhaps the most sustained example of national success, the achievements are by no means unique.

Across Africa – where strong partnerships are being forged between science, farmers and national governments – we are seeing similar results.

The task now is to strengthen and expand these partnerships, a central aim of the Pan-African Chemistry Network, which met in Ghana last week.

We need to bring together research institutes from across the continent and beyond to develop new crop strains that can flourish in African conditions.

With rains becoming more irregular, this must focus in particular on crop varieties that can thrive on less water. We also need to develop new farming techniques that make the most of every drop of water there is.

One of the major reasons why Africa is behind is that only a small proportion of land under cultivation is irrigated. Water-related issues are compounded by a multitude of other challenges.

Transportation of foodstuff from rural producers to cities is severely hindered by poor roads, driving prices ever higher.

The inability to process foodstuff locally forces developing nations to export their produce cheaply and purchase final products at higher costs.

The long-term solution must be to promote truly sustainable agriculture both in smallholdings, which continue to produce the majority of Africa’s food, as well as in large-scale commercial farms.

As the conference in Accra demonstrated, we are seeing a determined effort by the scientific community to collaborate to find solutions. If we get all this right, the future for farming on our continent is bright.

» Former Ghana president Kufuor (2001-2009) is this year’s World Food Prize Laureate

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