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Feeding Africa: A Modest Response

Will Africa be able to feed itself by 2030 as the recently released annual letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation suggests?

Sir Gordon Conway, Professional of International Development and Director of the Agriculture for Impact program at Imperial College in London, agrees with the Gates’ bet in a recent article titled,“A Modest Proposal for Feeding Africa” and recommends six strategies for feeding Africa:


  1. African farmers need rights to land, and to form part of industry associations.
  2. African farmers need access to seed, fertiliser and micro-credit locally, through agro-dealers.
  3. African farmers need to be linked to fair, efficient and transparent markets.
  4. African farmers need to be supported to start up businesses along the agricultural value chain.
  5. African farmers need to be linked into local and in particular regional markets in Africa, as well as international markets.
  6. African farmers need political leadership and the right kinds of investment.

While the article recognizes that African farmers need to be empowered, we felt like the analysis was missing some necessary points. Peter Gubbels, Groundswell’s Director for Acton Learning and Advocacy in West Africa, responded to the article with the following:

Interesting proposal, Sir Gordon, and on the face, seems good. But if you deepen the analysis somewhat, the picture becomes much more complex. Take Ghana’s so called success story (I live in northern Ghana). It is to be lauded that President Kufuor achieved a major reduction in hunger. In southern Ghana, indeed, number of people lifted out of poverty was over 3 million.

Over the same time period, in the northern regions of Ghana, the number of rural people (mostly farmers) who fell into hunger and poverty increased by 900,000. Ghana invested its 10% in the agricultural budget heavily into subsidizing fertilizer, and supporting cocoa producers in the south. That is fine, and family farmers benefitted, but chronic food and nutrition insecurity deepened in the north. The lesson I draw from this is that agricultural growth in the most productive areas, alone, will not solve hunger and poverty.

A productivist approach to agriculture that focuses only on increasing yields by better-off commercial farmers, will produce more food (and export crops) at least in the short run (let’s leave the issues of sustainability of soils, and continuation of fertilizer subsidies aside for the moment), but does not adequately address climate change/resilience, or agriculture’s role in diverse improved nutrition, nor the role of women farmers.

Not just in northern Ghana, but all across the Sahel, countries are achieving robust economic growth, including in agriculture, while poverty, hunger, and malnutrition are increasing. Within communities, the gap between the better off and poorest farmers is increasing. The humanitarian case load in the Sahel to address increasing chronic food insecurity has increased to 25 million people, and costs about 1.8 billion US dollars a year.

The neo-liberal approach to agricultural production, with it sole focus on value chains (mostly in high potential areas), and high use of external inputs which poorer farmers in more risk prone and ecologically fragile areas cannot afford, is deeply flawed. So I argue that these six points, while they indeed contain good recommendations, and seem reasonable, are deeply inadequate as a response, modest or otherwise.

Hunger in Africa cannot be addressed by increasing the over all aggregate supply of food…instead, it requires on enabling the most vulnerable groups (mostly the poorest farmers, particularly women), to increase to become not just more productive, but more resilient and able to regenerate the soils, trees, vegetative cover on which their livelihoods depend.

A final word: India, now apparently produces a large surplus of food, to which the Green Revolution contributed. But hunger and malnutrition in rural areas, are still huge problems in India.

What do you think of Peter’s response? 

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  • Alan Adams March 11, 2015   Reply →

    Peter Gubbels of Groundswell is absolutely right! This is the message we need to get out worldwide. There are solutions to these problems, but they don’t come from the top down. The solutions come from the people themselves. Where we can assist in applying the farmers’ solutions, we will.

    • groundswell March 11, 2015   Reply →

      Thanks so much for your reply, Alan! We couldn’t agree more. The lasting solutions have to come from the ground up.

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