Africa’s Farmers Deserve Choices

By Jemimah Njuki and Elizabeth Nsimadala

In a few weeks, the United Nations will host the first international Food Systems Summit. The goal is to create a global movement committed to solving the many dietary, economic and environmental problems linked to the way food is produced, sold and consumed today.

Africa, a continent with high rates of poverty and malnutrition that are strongly connected to poorly performing farms—and home to vast tracts of uncultivated but farmable land—will be a stress test for the summit’s aspirations.

Both of us grew up in farming households in Kenya and Uganda and have devoted our professional careers to exploring the wide assortment of challenges and opportunities connected to food production in Africa. We have a deep understanding of the fact that being a farmer in Africa today can be either a blessing or a burden.

Most Africans—including up to 90% of people living in rural communities—still rely on small-scale or “smallholder” crop and livestock production to generate the income they need to support their families.

Their farms—if productive and with good access to markets—can be the blessing that pays for school fees, health care and also food to round out their family’s nutritional needs. Farming is especially important for providing economic opportunities for African women.

But farming is often a burden for many Africans because they lack what they need to succeed—so their farms don’t provide sufficient incomes or even enough food. This burden grows heavier every day as the stresses of climate change and, more recently, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic add new obstacles.

Too many African farmers will head to their fields tomorrow with the same set of limited options they have been saddled with for decades—such as seeds for crop varieties that have become susceptible to a proliferation of plant pests and diseases, meager amounts of inputs and technical support to help them restore dangerously depleted soils, and no mechanization to work their lands or process their crops.

Increasingly, Africa’s agriculture burdens are outnumbering its agriculture blessings.

From our extensive work with African farmers, it’s clear that the Food Systems Summit’s admirable vision will not be achieved on our continent as long as our farmers lack the basic choices available to farmers elsewhere in the world. The same can be said for efforts to recover from the pandemic and adapt to climate change.

But here’s where the situation becomes especially complicated.

Many organizations are advocating for single solutions, restricting the options available for African farmers to choose from, when they should be doing just the opposite. And while we recognize that it is important to protect African farmers and African ecosystems from exploitation, we also must recognize the sovereignty of African farmers and their agency to choose what works best for their farms and their families and for protecting the ecosystems that they depend on.

For example, today, many African farmers save seeds from maize, beans or other crops cultivated in one season for planting in the next. They also may trade seeds with one another through informal markets. But too many of these varieties do not translate into good harvests. They have become susceptible to crop pests and diseases or changing climate conditions.  According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the amount of maize and other cereal crops harvested per acre or hectare in Africa is less than half the global average.

Therefore, there has been a growing effort by a number of African countries to work with their farmers to develop new, improved varieties that—while they are not a cure-all—can better respond to farmer needs and preferences. Yet some still view even commercial seeds—especially if they must be purchased fresh every year—with deep suspicion.

The answer is to help farmers understand the trade-offs and let them choose. But why vilify those who seek to offer the choice?

Overall, it feels like today there is a perverse logic in which we are being told that African farmers must be penalized for problems originating largely in wealthy countries. So no commercial seeds, even if our farmers want them. No fertilizers, even if they are desperately needed and can be responsibly used—African farmers currently apply less than 20 kilos per hectare, compared to a global average of 136 kilos. And no mechanization, even though many African farmers still plough with their cows and hand hoes.

We believe the Food Systems Summit could provide a forum for a reset that seeks to find common ground for the increasingly fractious debate over food production in Africa.

First, we can start with an agreement that we all want the same thing: environmentally sustainable, economically successful farms that deliver better opportunities for rural farming families across the continent and affordable, nutritious diets for all Africans. And we can agree that it’s incredibly important to develop public sector policies that encourage responsible use of agricultural inputs and safeguard farmers from potentially exploitive practices.

But the worst thing we can do right now for African farmers and Africa’s vulnerable food systems and ecosystems is to greatly narrow the menu of solutions available. Instead, let’s look for consensus instead of conflict and consider that there can be many paths to achieving our shared goals.

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