Feeding the world

Jarred Myers reports from Feeding the World, an Economist conference in Sandton focusing on Africa's role in solving global food crisis.

THE Economist this week hosted a conference in Johannesburg with an ambitious goal: Feeding the world, Africa's role in solving the global food crisis.

Feeding 9 billion people is an ambitious goal and as befits a conference of this nature, a mixed bag of stakeholders have gathered from around the world.

The tough nut to crack floated to the surface early on - getting public-private partnerships (PPP) to work.

Gra├ža Machel, renowned for her work as Mozambique's minister of education and culture in decades past, opened the conference with a frank, sleeves rolled-up approach to the topic.

Her message resonated through a folk saying in her mother tongue: "Your neighbour's granary will never fill your stomach."

This anti-dependency stance is a breath of fresh air in an entitlement-filled smog generated by the "we demand" squad.

Machel's focus on dignified work differentiated her message from the cacophony of calls for job creation.

Drawing a line between a job and work, she emphasised that a job solves the short-term problem while work - specifically entrepreneurial work - is more likely to lead to dignified labour.

This addition of the dignity factor is a welcome entrant to the employment conversation. It spotlights the need for agriculturally-focused entrepreneurship startup kits, namely access to capital, land, skills, consumables and markets.

On the heels of Machel's message, Global Alliance for Improved Nutritional Gain (GAIN) chairperson, Jay Naidoo of Cosatu fame, emphasised the need for coordination between the various stakeholders - specifically woman farmers - to facilitate successful smallhold farming.

Naidoo highlighted the message being transmitted from his work at GAIN, from women at the base of the pyramid. He emphasised that these women are clear on what they need and want: land, seeds, fertilizer, implements - and business skills to manage these inputs.

The only surprise here was the acknowledgement that business skills are needed, which reinforces the opinion that a less parochial view can be taken on these women, a message subsequently drummed in by Sheila Sisulu of the World Food Programme.

Naidoo, as part of the town hall panel, proceeded to identify the elephant in the room - the government

The critical point highlighted by Naidoo is that if smallhold farming is to work, it needs to scale and scale requires market coordination.

Citing success stories in India, where smallhold big-scale is working, he provided a glimmer of hope for our trail-blundering government.

Following up on his theme of Thursday night, Naidoo this morning drove home his message that the United Nations and its ilk can't drive change management - change needs to come from the ground up, with all stakeholders playing their role.

The government needs to supply the inputs, land, seeds and so on; it also needs to give smallholders skills to mitigate failure.

Business should do what business does - balance markets through the forces of supply and demand.

This needs to be bolstered by the government securing access to markets, and blasting open wide corridors for trade.

Quipping that paper will accept anything written on it, Naidoo drove home the message that it's not about developing the solutions - which already exist - but rather about implementing them.

An insight, profound yet counter intuitive, by Shenggen Fan, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, is that market forces will not allocate production to maximise nutrition. Rather, resources will be allocated towards maximising profits.

This salient point highlights that the solution cannot be unilateral from state or industry but rather one requiring market steering and intervention, a tough pill to swallow in the SA context given the state's track record.

In the light of the inherent complexity, scale and urgency of the challenge, it appears that Africa's role in solving the global food crisis is one and the same as its role in solving its smorgasbord of problems: effective leadership.

The solutions exist, the institutions exist, the stakeholders exist, so why the poor performance?

The answer is that the absence of decisive, effective leaders in the public and private sectors  is hamstringing implementation and prevents getting the job done.

The best advice on solving this problem is oddly located on my running shoes: just do it.

 - Fin24

*Fin24 user Jarred Myers doubles as a guest columnist.

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