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Executive Perspectives

EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: ‘Africa Leads the World on Sustainable Agriculture, and the World Should Take Note’

David Nabarro

11 Sep 2018

11 September 2018

“Africa’s leaders are increasingly focused on the ways in which their food, land and water systems are able to provide nutritious and affordable food, restore the planet’s ecosystems, absorb greenhouse gases and contribute to prosperous livelihoods everywhere.”

David Nabarro is co-laureate of the 2018 World Food Prize and a Food & Land Use Coalition Ambassador. He is a professor at the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College and Director of 4SD. Here he provides important insight on Africa’s Sustainable Agriculture practices and why the rest of the world should be following suit. Sherah Beckley, Editor Thomson Reuters Sustainability.


As I walked around the Africa Green Revolution Forum in Rwanda last week, there was a sense of growing potential as leaders from government, business, civil society, and farmers discussed ways to advance resilient and sustainable agriculture that will feed nearly 1 billion people who live in sub-Saharan Africa today, and more than 2 billion by 2050.
Across my varied career, there has been one consistent feature: a commitment to promoting childhood nutrition – especially in the period between conception and a child’s second birthday. This is a critical point in paediatric growth and development, when physical strength and intellectual capacity are programmed. Good nutrition forms the base of strong “human capital,” which contributes to economic growth and stability.  

A critical lever to ensuring adequate nutrition is sustainable agriculture. Today, 500 million smallholder farms around the world provide livelihoods for more than 2 billion people and produce about 80% of the food in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. Resilient, sustainable and well-connected agricultural systems are essential to providing people with access to affordable, nutritious food at local levels.

What happens on land directly impacts the well-being of children, and is massively influenced by weather patterns, availability of water, soil quality, the condition of forests and biodiversity.

This is especially true in Africa home to 33 million smallholder farmers who provide 80% of the continent’s food supply and 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. Yet these smallholders’ lives and livelihoods are under threat due in part to climate change. Africa contributes little to global greenhouse gas emissions, but is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change due to its weak ability to adapt to related weather impacts, as well as its dependence on rain-fed agriculture. A number of studies show that extreme weather, particularly longer and more intense droughts, heavy rainfall and floods, has the potential to lead to an increase in increased malnutrition and stunting due to poor crop yields.

Underscoring this point, one recent study estimates that elevated carbon dioxide (co2) could cause an additional 33.6 million in sub-Saharan Africa to become zinc deficient and another 16 million protein deficient by 2050 if levels continue to increase unabated. Today, an estimated 60 million African children under 5 years old are stunted due to inadequate nutrition.

A range of actions across sectors is needed to ensure the sustainability of Africa’s food and land use systems – and the health and well-being of millions of children. Working with academic institutions, governments can build capacity to support long-term land use planning: collaborating across national boundaries to share knowledge; cross-sectoral action coalitions to support the implementation of ambitious policies on-the-ground.

In addition, greater collaboration across sectors and disciplines (including across ministerial departments) can help the trade-offs between nutrition, agriculture and climate change. The private sector can increase R&D investment to improve production and consumption processes (for example, rich data) – and commit to deploy these to transform systems and distribute the benefits more equally, rather than to strengthen the status quo. And investors can develop innovative financial instruments to crowd-in private investment to sustainable food and land use.

The face of Africa’s agriculture is changing fast, and there is much good news. Production is on the increase. The World Bank estimates the African food market will be worth US $1 trillion by 2030 up from the current US $300 billion, while demand for food is also projected to at least double by 2050. What’s more, the continent’s land is likely to be put to good use as demand for better food reflects the rapid growth of the continent’s middle-class.

To sustain this momentum in the face of the looming threats of climate change, Africa’s leaders are increasingly focused on the ways in which their food, land and water systems are able to provide nutritious and affordable food, restore the planet’s ecosystems, absorb greenhouse gases and contribute to prosperous livelihoods everywhere.

They want to ensure that those with the least have opportunities to prosper while building resilience in the face of increasingly volatile weatherdue to climate change. This growing commitment is setting the foundation for a much-needed transformation of the current food and land use systems in Africa and beyond, toward one that is exponentially more sustainable and resilient. ​

These leaders are exploring how to improve smallholders’ access to finance and markets so they can sell produce at a fair and regular price; how to create rural infrastructure, policies and standards to improve inter-African food trading; how to ensure that young people are attracted into the farming sectorto provide nutritious food for future generations. These measures will reduce the bill for African food imports (currently $35 billion a year, expected to rise to $110 billion by 2025) and lessen pressures on urban areas from those who seek work. They will contribute to more resilient agricultural supply chains.

Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency, for example,is integrating environmental regeneration, biodiversity and improved governance into agricultural commercialisation, committing to helping smallholder farmers achieve greater incomes, resilience and sustainability by 2025.

In Tanzania, the President’s Agriculture Sector Development Programme aims to reform the small-scale farming, livestock, and fishing industries to increase productivity, revenues for farmer andfood security. This is especially important in a country where agriculture in Tanzania contributes more than 29% to national GDP and 65% of employment opportunities.

There is a new narrative unfolding in Africa.

As AkinwumiAdesina, President of the African Development Bank (ADB), winner of the World Food Prize in 2017, has said,

“The future of food in the world will depend on what Africa does with agriculture.”

Given the momentum taking place, the world would do well to learn from Africa’s leadership on sustainable food and land us systems, and invest in the continent to accelerate this momentum and ensure the future potential of Africa’s children for generations.

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