The Sasakawa Africa Association’s value chain–focused approach to supporting African agriculture relies on the work of highly competent specialists. We joined some of the regional and divisional leaders of the SAA in a roundtable discussion on the current state of the SAA’s work in Africa and the near- and long-term prospects for the continent.
- Dr. Juliana Rwelamira, Managing Director of SAA
- Dr. Andreas Oswald, Director of Crop Productivity Enhancement
- Engr. Leonides Halos-Kim, Director of Postharvest and Agro-processing
- Dr. Deola Naibakelao, Managing Director of the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE)
- Dr. Justine Wangila, Director of Monitoring, Evaluation, Learning and Sharing
- Dr. Aberra Debelo, Country Director for Ethiopia
- Dr. Roselline Nyamutale, Country Director for Uganda
- Dr. Sani Miko, Country Director for Nigeria
(This article presents some key excerpts from the roundtable discussion between SAA regional and divisional leaders held on August 8, 2012 at the SAA Regional Office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.)
Food Security Preceeds Economic Development
Africa is a big continent. We are very diverse, and we have many problems. If you follow the news media at all, then you know there is civil strife in several African countries today. Unavoidably, these conditions will affect the momentum of any development program underway in the affected countries. Obviously, this applies not only to the SAA, but to the country as a whole. We need to aspire to a free and secure Africa, where the business of the day will be development. Economic development starts with being able to secure food for everybody, and to ensure that nobody goes to sleep hungry. As a group, this must be our first pledge to all the countries in Africa south of the Sahara.
Most regional governments have done this much, each pledging to establish food security for their countries through their millennium development goals. Different governments are running different development programs to achieve this goal. The SAA’s activities are intimately linked to these programs, because all of the work we do is geared toward improving food security and improving incomes among the people of rural Africa.
Now, the issue of income is more complicated than just self-sufficiency, because for a household to be able to generate income, it has to be able to sell something. In Africa the majority of farmers are still producing at subsistence, and those are the people we target in the SAA. We try and help people move from the subsistence level to the surplus level, where they can start selling something. Even if that means selling to their neighbors, income is income, and income means they have food and they can now buy other things that they need. They can pay for health care; they can pay for educations; they can pay for whatever else they need.
What we want to see is improved standards of living, better government, better opportunity and better lives for sub-Saharan Africa. We face a number of different problems over which we have no control, like price escalation, for example. If Africa is going to be a part of the global village, we still have to work within constraints and work with these forces we can’t control, and price is one of them. Africa wants to trade with the rest of the world, but the World Trade Organization sometimes sets specific conditions, and some of which affect Africa negatively. At a governmental policy level, many countries are trying to build foreign currency reserves and clear other hurdles preventing them from becoming part of the global trading bodies, but meeting the conditions of the established global trade system is not easy for sub-Saharan Africa. Gradually, some of the countries there have begun to join forces with the BRICS countries, to try to penetrate into global trade.
On the ground, SAA is dealing with a different sort of issues—very basic issues. What do I foresee in the future? I would like to see an Africa that has achieved food security and where families in the rural areas have managed to push beyond subsistence to lead fuller lives. That is my dream.
No Progress without Political Stability
For any substantial change to take place, you need stability: social stability and political stability. Africa today has ongoing civil wars and other chronic instability. For instance, last year, we concluded the twenty-fifth anniversary of the SAA in Mali, but in March of this year, the president was ousted and a new president came into power. With this sort of instability, not much can be accomplished. In regions that are under military occupation, very little is taking places by way of development (nothing can be accomplished). So the foremost precondition of any progress and development is the stability of the country. There is potential for change everywhere, and I think we can see echoes of the Arab Spring in sub-Saharan Africa as well.
But our immediate wish—or my immediate wish—is really for the politicians and the people who run our countries to show more wisdom in operating and running their countries. You cannot start any development activity if the country lacks stability. I think much of what we have talked about here is really about the stability of the country.
I think the poor road infrastructure in our countries is also a very big problem. Sometimes, you can look at a country, and its internal agriculture production, and you will find production deficit regions and surplus regions. If your road infrastructure is poor, how do you move goods from the surplus to the deficit regions? I think this is another governance issue that needs to be addressed at the national level.
Including Women in the Decision-Making Process
As an African woman, there is one thing I would also like to see in the years to come. We have seen that most women participate in agricultural production, whether for cash crops or food crops. Women provide labor, but quite often, the women aren’t involved in the marketing and decision-making, especially when it comes to income. I would like to see African women more involved in the decision-making process, which in a way also motivates them to participate more in the agricultural production.
I think some African men do not really want to stop discrimination against women, they are still in denial about the capabilities of women. In a population made up of more than 50% women, denying women empowerment leads to no or underutilization of human resources. At the same time, men feel that empowering women diminishes the power of men, emasculating them, so to speak.
Usually when you go to wash your hands, you have to use both hands if you want them washed well. If you wash with just one hand, you can’t wash properly. If these women were not being discriminated against in terms of access to resource, I think we would have made greater progress. If they had had access to resources as readily as their male counterparts, we would have been much farther ahead than we are in Africa today. Look at countries where there is no discrimination. They are way, way ahead of us.
Harnessing Hidden Strengths: Cooperation Between Men and Women
The issue is, when the male is the head of the household (which is usually the case) and is allocating the resources, especially land, he allocates the best to himself. Worse still the woman has to first help cultivate and plan the male plot (usually of cash crops), even if he’s not going to the share the proceeds from the plot with the family. By the time the woman finally go to the plot, the season is way ahead or has passed, they may have missed the first rains, which are meant for early planting. Late planting and weeding (among other things) will affect the yield and amount of produce from the plot.
If the woman doesn’t handle the crop or doesn’t have the skills and knowledge to manage the crop, it can be ruinous for crop yields.
There are significant issues for women in Africa relating to tradition and religion. They differ in extent from one place to another but they are serious issues, and they affect our efficiency; they affect the level of what women are able to produce. So it is my hope that in the near future, Africa will see women who are not bound by all these traditional or religious rules that incapacitate them, or make them less efficient.
To reduce gender inequality, during our meeting with men and women farmers, I always tell the men: “Please make your women happy, so that at the end of the day everyone will be happy because she will take better care of the family.” It is difficult, though. We want to see more women becoming more involved but men sometimes stand in the way because of cultural norms. It will take some more time, but this is one of the reasons why I think the work of the SAA, which supports women’s participation, is so important. I have no doubt that we will see, and our grandchildren will see, the day when we reach a level where women are participating more actively in all economic as well as social activities, and benefit as a result. Then, everyone will be happy at the end of the day.
Making the Case for Training Women: Convincing Skeptical Husbands
Gender issues arise in the area of training as well, thus it is important for us to convince men to allow their wives to participate in the training programs at universities and colleges. What we are doing now with universities and colleges, is to ask them to give due attention to the specific training needs of female extension workers as well as following flexible criteria for their admission to training programs. Female extension workers are better able to communicate freely, directly, and effectively with women farmers. Engaging a critical mass of female staff in agricultural extension systems is therefore of paramount importance and will contribute to overcoming the negative impact of gender issues in our societies.
Corruption Continues to Stifle Africa’s Development
We have already talked about some problems, like poor infrastructure and the lack of resources and material, but I think there’s another very important factor that is slowing down agricultural and other development programs, and that is corruption. It’s a very serious matter. You can have a good program design and good allocation of resources to carry out certain development activities, but corruption will always mitigate productivity and spoil the work. Corruption is a serious matter in almost every African country, and unless we address that, I think we still have a long way to go before these development programs can have a real, broad impact.
Preventing Return to Poverty
Overall, if you look at Africa five years ago, the percentage of population living below the poverty line has decreased in most countries. That means that quite a number of people have moved out of poverty and now are living above the poverty line, but we have to appreciate this is a dynamic process. There are some people who move out of poverty and some who move in. We have to make sure that our efforts not only get people out, but also help to sustain them there so that they don’t fall back. In terms of production, I think we need work more and more with researchers to develop especially drought resistant seeds. Otherwise small failures in rainfall will continue to represent a difficult challenge.
I think there are two more important issues that must be addressed to improve food security in Africa. First is infrastructure. In Ethiopia and a number of other countries, improved infrastructure has helped decrease the cost of bringing the food to the table. If each country was able to make such improvements, then food prices at least, would remain a bit more stable.
Transport costs are a second major contributor to high food prices in Africa, mainly because of fuel prices. Recently, in some countries where we work there are very positive signs on that front. Nigeria already has oil. And there is new oil in Uganda and Kenya—and hopefully in Ethiopia. There is natural gas in Tanzania. If these resources are harnessed successfully, it may help to speed development.
Building African Industry on a Foundation of Agricultural Production
As for my vision of Africa in the short term: I want to see a food-secure Africa, within five to ten years. That is what the activities of the SAA and so many other development workers of NGOs and public institutions are trying to contribute to through improved agricultural technologies. A food-secure Africa is the most important thing.
Then in the medium term, which could be the next fifteen to thirty-five years, what we want is a transition from subsistence farming to commercial farming, so that individual farmers produce food for the market. This will come only after food security issues have been resolved. Ten or fifteen years down the line, we would like to see an African food industry beginning to develop, using the raw materials produced by local commercial farmers in each country. In the long run, of course we want Africa to develop industrially and economically, and ultimately we hope to see an Africa free of external influences that can stand and decide for itself.
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa