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The Borlaug Blog

In the Tradition of Norm Borlaug: Rising to the Challenge of African Food Security

By Ismail Serageldin
The World Food Prize Council of Advisors

As we observe the 10th anniversary of the passing of Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution and committed warrior against hunger, we can honor his memory by rising to the unique challenge posed by African food security.  Demographic forecasts see African population growth continuing throughout the century. To deal with the needs of double, treble or quadruple the population in about a single lifetime of 85 years is an enormous task.   

Not only will Africa’s population rise much faster and longer than other regions, but also Climate Change will pose enormous challenges.  In northern Africa, a region that is hot and dry will become hotter and drier. The forecast is clearly for further desertification and even less availability of water than currently exists for a region that has 5 percent of the population of the world but only 1 percent of the water.  And this food deficit region will have to import even more food, noting that already Egypt and Algeria rank as the second and third largest importers of wheat in the world[1]. But south of the Sahara, about 95 percent of agriculture is rain-fed. Hence, the expected erratic pattern of future rainfall will create a cycle of droughts and flood that the extremely small farms (about one hectare) cultivated by family farmers (representing over 60 percent of total farms), will find very difficult to survive. 

In addition to these natural and inherited conditions, there are further challenges posed by changes in human societies.  Africa is becoming more urban, which will require more transportable food, less post-harvest loss and reduced senescence in the production, in addition to increased yields.  Infrastructure in terms of roads, storage facilities and the expanded possibilities of transformation of food and retailing will all need special attention. But Africa is also the theater of many conflicts which inevitably lead to displacing populations, insecurities in transport and distribution and other issues.

In the spirit of Norman Borlaug, we must mobilize science to confront the looming specter of recurrent African famines. 

An expanded agricultural extension service, as Ethiopia has done, will help ensure that the scientific discoveries find their way to the farmers, including ICT for the improved management of smart farms, through the use of remote sensing and small drones and hand held devices that farmers could manage on their own.  Just as the technology of mobile phones worked for the management of small and micro-financial services, I am sure that the technology of the smart agriculture will be suitable to help the very small African farms.

We can encourage local entrepreneurs to develop new seed companies for the production and dissemination of suitable new seeds produced by the new biology, promoting traits such as greater drought and salt tolerance, shorter growing season and reduced senescence, as well as improved nutritional value. 

Attention to the national promotion of education and science and especially agricultural research, along with a re-invigorated International Agricultural Research System (e.g. a revived CGIAR) supporting them, is the way to go.

Increasing resilience in the face of potential disruptions with buffer stocks and farmer insurance programs, to increases in community resilience.  National agricultural research efforts should also include some experimental work on urban agriculture, such as vertical agriculture and hydroponics.

And we should encourage some out of the box thinking, such as the scientific study of the possibilities of lab-produced meats, single cell proteins as well as new developments in aquaculture, and algae-based fuels.  New approaches to enriching soil fertility through biological approaches rather than just adding chemical fertilizers. 

But we have learned that technology alone cannot bring about development, and that we must promote social involvement and participation, especially recognizing the gender dimension in African food security.  Women play a central role in the production of food and the strengthening of resilience of communities to the catastrophic impacts of war and climatic disasters. Special attention to their needs in any agricultural policies, programs, research and extension is essential.

Speed is of the essence.  Accelerating the movement of innovations from lab to farm and production from farm gate to consumer plate are essential features of any successful strategy.

How realistic is such a scenario?   If we consider the speed with which Africa is taking to the new technologies of mobile telephony and smart phones, we can hope that smart agriculture will not be far behind. African youth, better educated and fully connected, will be the real treasures of Africa for the future. And in the spirit of Norm Borlaug, we say: It can be done, it must be done, it will be done!

08/12/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (2)
A very strong why Africa needs 4-H Youth Agriculture Development. Already Ghana has taken the lead with 4-H preparing young people to become true leaders in agriculture. Support 4-H Enterprise School Garden Program in Ghana.

Ofosu Asamoah | | | 08/15/2019 3:37 AM
So very true and to the point. Now we must get moving forward and utilize the tremendous potential of the youth of Africa. They are ready to do their best.

Roger Engstrom | | 08/12/2019 9:40 PM
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