A GREEN revolution, like any other revolution, takes real leadership; it requires an acknowledgement that food production is a life-and-death matter, a Vietnamese academic told an agricultural conference I attended in Hanoi last week.
Feeding a nation was not possible without a clear and decisive strategy, he said. Vietnam has proved that it knows a thing or two about producing food, for not only its people but a good chunk of the globe. Its own green revolution allowed it to move from being a net food importer to one of the world’s biggest exporters in certain crops.
Good leadership, high investment in the sector and constant policy innovation have been the hallmarks of many Asian agricultural revolutions. The story is well known but the lesson remains instructive.
In Africa, one could interpret the invitation by at least 11 African governments to South African farmers to come to their countries to produce food as at least an acknowledgement that there is a problem in agriculture — and an opportunity.
But it also suggests our continental leaders are not looking for a revolution but rather a quick fix.
The latest such deal — the offer of 10-million hectares to South African farmers to produce food in the Republic of Congo, a fertile country that continues to import 95% of its needs — highlights the huge needs of such countries. And it is just one of many.
Fertile land is one of Africa’s greatest resources. And yet 35 African countries are net food importers. The reasons for this are as complex as they are simple.
The approach by many foreign governments (and several African states such as Libya, Egypt and Mauritius) to rent land on the continent to grow food for their own people suggests it is possible to turn this around, and to do it quickly with the right elements in place.
This new resources grab is controversial — as most issues related to land in Africa are.
Detractors say renting to foreigners will rob Africans, particularly peasant farmers, of their land.
Concerns have also been raised about limited linkages to local development and sustainable development because of a lack of transparency in negotiating such deals.
The debate on these issues, raging for years in the resources sector, has hardly begun in agriculture. It took foreign interest in this unused resource to get us thinking about it.
Regardless of the merits of such deals, the increasing interest in producing food in African land raises the question: if the land presents such a big global opportunity, why are we doing so little with it?
Why is the continent still mired in the decades-old situation of begging for food from international donors, as Ethiopia did last week? Why can African countries not feed themselves when more than half of all economically active people are on the land?
The Zambian example shows what can be done with a few good skills and technical support. The country moved from being a maize importer to an exporter in just a few years on the back of the efforts of little more than a dozen skilled commercial farmers. African farming skills are a sought-after resource and white farmers in southern Africa seem ready to fill the gap.
But these ad hoc interventions will not be a substitute for building agriculture from the bottom up through dramatically increased investment in people and agriculture, predictable and innovative policies, and, importantly, leadership.
Despite the heightened international interest in the sector, agriculture remains the poor cousin of African development. It bears the brunt of poor operating environments and weak macroeconomic policy. It is the victim of political exploitation and urban drift.
People want to be in the cities. The elites who make policy are focused on the urban opportunities. Rural populations are generally left to fend for themselves, becoming voting fodder every few years when elections come around, as the recipients of politically expedient policies that do little more than further undermine the sector.
The new land grab in Africa, estimated at nearly 3-million hectares to date and gaining ground, is a wake- up call to do something with one of the biggest resources the continent has. We are running out of excuses for why Africans continue to starve.
Games is CE of Africa @ Work, a research and consulting company.