Borlaug Symposium: “The Path to Growth: The Evolving Mindset of Farmers in Africa”

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Your Excellencies, President Carter and President Chissano, Honorable Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for your presence here today.

As we saw from the documentary, Dr. Borlaug always had a positive attitude. No matter how difficult the predicament, he never gave up. Even when he was stricken by cancer, his stance did not change: the well-being of African farmers was always his first priority. Watching the documentary, I had to hold back tears because of the fond memories it brought back.

Today, I would like to recall the remarkable man who gave his heart and soul to this land, and say a few words as one of the founders of the Sasakawa Global 2000 Project, or SG2000.

It was the Ethiopian famine in 1984 that triggered the birth of SG2000. Shocking images of the dead and dying were broadcast around the world. But what shocked me most were scenes of dying children – children so exhausted they did not have the strength to raise food to their mouths. Many countries responded by sending relief goods to Ethiopia. I also acted swiftly to have The Nippon Foundation send emergency aid.

However, although the famine was disastrous, Ethiopia and other countries of sub-Saharan Africa had already known critical food shortages. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa traditional farming methods involve scattering seeds and relying on rainfall. However, because of poor soil quality and lack of regular rainfall, this was not producing enough food for growers and their families to live on.

Once the Ethiopian famine eased, the countries that had sent emergency aid gradually lost interest in Africa’s food problems. Africans found themselves back in the same old predicament, uncertain whether they would have enough to eat the next day.

As a result of this devastating event, my father and I considered what could be done to solve Africa’s food problems. Ryoichi Sasakawa, my father, was then the president of The Nippon Foundation. He and I had repeated discussions with agricultural experts and specialists. After carefully considering their ideas and opinions, we reached the following conclusion.

Teaching small-scale subsistence farmers how to farm using methods suited to Africa’s soil and climate. This would eventually enable them to produce enough food on their own to feed their families. These small-scale farmers made up 70% of Africa’s population and lived in constant state of unease over their food security.

We were convinced that Dr. Borlaug, who began Asia’s “Green Revolution”, was the only person who could save the farmers of Africa. I approached Dr. Borlaug, who was 70 years old at that time. He was contemplating retirement but I appealed for his cooperation. President Jimmy Carter was already undertaking several public health-related projects in Africa and he graciously gave his full support. In this way, SG2000 was born.

As you are probably aware, SG2000 is a method of planned agriculture. It uses small amounts of chemical fertilizer and high-grade seeds suited to the region’s particular soil and climate and this method is transferred to small-scale farmers under the careful guidance of local extension workers. The farmers who are using the traditional methods are producing barely enough food to feed their families. The SG2000 is the means for them to increase their yield and free themselves from hunger by their own efforts.

Under the leadership of country directors drawn from talented agricultural scientists from around the world are the local extension workers. They diligently visited each household, teaching this new method of agriculture with passion and dedication. As the trust between farmers and extension workers developed, we started to see a change in mindset. Farmers who had been reluctant to try the new method were now eager to give it a go. Their hesitation and fear were replaced by enthusiasm as they wanted to attain a year-round supply of food for their families.

After a decade, the farming households participating in the project had increased their yield two- to three-fold. Some were even producing a surplus. These results gave farmers confidence and hope for the future, and it seemed as though their food situation was improving.

However, despite the fact they could now increase their output, farmers were still finding it hard to lift themselves above the subsistence level. There were many reasons for this, but the main reason was that farmers producing a surplus were bringing their produce to market at the same time. This led to a glut in the market, causing a fall in prices, with the result that growers could not earn what they had been expecting. Unable to make an income, they could not afford to buy the seeds and fertilizers necessary to increase their yield further. The farmers were devastated by these results, and disappointed that their efforts were coming to nothing. They became far less motivated to continue SG2000. Some of them even resumed their traditional farming methods.

Despite this difficult situation, the extension workers did not lose heart. They continued their painstaking efforts to get farmers to adopt the SG2000 method. And in the middle of the 1990s, we decided to take a new approach. In addition to the farming method of how to increase food supply, we introduced a new initiative of post-harvest handling and agro-processing.

Until then, the farmers only had limited means of agro-processing, preservation and storage so surpluses would often spoil and go to waste, or end up fetching extremely low prices due to oversupply. However, using proper storage and processing, the farmers were able to minimize waste and sell their surpluses under much more favorable conditions. Seeing how increased production generates income convinced farmers to accept the SG2000 method once again. It gave them an incentive to do their best. Our new approach restored their confidence and motivation, and the feeling that the SG2000 was worth all its value.

Many people in Africa are still living at the subsistence level. But as SG2000 progresses, more farmers than ever are thinking about how they can improve their lives by turning the produce they harvest into income. Therefore, while continuing to focus on our main activity of teaching appropriate farming methods, we also intend to address the different challenges found throughout the value chain. By doing so, we will focus even more closely on ways to increase the income and improve the living standards of small-scale farmers.

I have so far spoken on Africa’s food situation through the lens of SG2000. However, these challenges I have mentioned, such as production increases and value-chain analysis, are not just challenges that SG2000 is facing. These are challenges shared by all of us here concerned with Africa’s agriculture.

Dr. Borlaug often said, “Africa’s children mustn’t go to sleep hungry.” He kept this thought close to his heart. He dedicated himself to the development of Africa’s agriculture. He worked in the field with the farmers, but his contribution went beyond imparting plowing and planting techniques.

He cultivated a dream that could empower the farmers;
He planted seeds of hope;
He watered them with enthusiasm;
He gave them sunshine;
He inspired with his passion;
He harvested confidence in the hearts of African farmers.

I am now 71 years old – about the age that Dr. Borlaug was when he began working with Africa. I may not have his strength of will and boundless energy, but I will continue down the path that this great man has set before us. In the Borlaug spirit of “Never give up,” I pledge before you that I will do my best to overcome any difficulties that lie in the way as we work together to improve the lives of the farmers in Africa.

Thank you.