By Chinwuba Iyizoba
On Ash Wednesday, the 36th session of IFAD’s Governing Council convened in Rome with a focus on the power of partnerships to reduce rural poverty and ensure food security worldwide and Africa was once again on the agenda. In an address delivered by Pope Benedict XVI to the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)Mr. Kanayo F. Nwanze, one can see that Africa’s food problem is the Pope’s great concern. The Holy Father thanked the Organization for the constant attention given to Africa and the supporting projects of “rural credit” with which IFAD aims to endow small farmers with modest but essential financial resources to empower them.
In Africa, big farms are often divided amongst children as inheritance, sometimes leaving each a patch, large enough to grow a handful of corn. Collectivizing these small farms into large holders could breed trouble, unless the government intervenes. But many African governments do not invest in agriculture. Thus small holder farms represent 80 per cent of all farms in sub-Saharan Africa and contribute up to 90 per cent of production in some countries. At the meetings in the Ethiopian capital last year, the IFAD President said that smallholder farmers are at the centre of any plan for post-2015 and a key challenge IFAD is helping build the capacity of smallholder farmers and their organizations so that they can become viable rural businesses, particularly for women and young people who shoulder the future of African smallholder farming.
In Nigeria, at least, the Holy father’s concerns are already being addressed, thanks to the Harambe initiative, a non-profit organization aimed at helping hardworking and ambitious youths to see opportunities in farming, train them to start smallholder farms and support already existing small holder farms in their local community. According to 25 years old Tola Sunmonu, the President of Harambe Nigeria and graduate of Stanford University, California, “We intend to provide the necessary information to get young people to start thinking about agriculture as a lucrative career. Rebuilding of the agriculture sector is one of the smartest strategies towards rebuilding the Nigerian economy. We believe that the sector is extremely undervalued and there are a lot of opportunities available, especially for hardworking and ambitious youth.”
But this is not an easy task considering that young people in Africa are often averse to farming as observed by Ezekwesili Oby, Vice President for the World Bank’s Africa Region. “Africans do not want to be the farmers their grandparents were: hoe in hand, tilling the soil in scorching sun all year round, harvesting barely enough to feed, shelter and house their families,” she said, “making the sector more attractive to the African youth – seven-to-ten million of whom join the labor force each year – must entail modernizing agriculture, raising productivity, boosting incomes, and expanding links to export markets.”
Before 1970, many Nigerians were farmers, and Agriculture contributed more than 75 percent of export earnings. Northern Nigeria, though the least educated at that time was in the fore front of agriculture with gigantic ground-nut pyramids dotting the skyline. By the mid-1990s, agriculture’s share of exports had declined to less than 5 percent, due to the neglect. In the North, rolling pastures have gave way to arid fields, and swathes of Muslims youths took up Islamic militancy, hundreds thrive on government contract and thousands of families rely on state governments food hand-out.
“It is essential to provide farmers with solid formation, constant updating and technical assistance in their activity, as well as support for initiatives to build associations and cooperatives capable of proposing effective models of production…some peoples could greatly improve upon the conditions of their life if they would change over from antiquated methods of farming to the new tech,” the holy father said.
But the directors of Harambe initiative has already heeded the Holy father logic by integrating farming with the IT industry, a mix that has the potential of attracting young people by getting rid of the stigma that often associates farmers with the illiterate. It has a website called the Farmland which provides resources that give young people access to the skills, network and capital that they need to establish themselves in the sector. Harambe provide resources that give young people access to the skills, network and capital that they need to establish themselves in the sector in some cases. “Our main project is the Harambe Incubator for Sustainable Agricultural and Rural Development (HISARD),” says Tola. HISARD comprises a two-year scholarship program in which selected students engage in extensive training and research which they use to develop and implement innovative solutions to the agricultural problems facing the small holders farms in local communities.
“If you ask me what the next ‘big thing’ in Africa will be, I’d say without hesitation agriculture and agri-business,” Ezekwesili said at an investor forum organized by Africa investor, in 2010. But Government yet still needs to do its part. It needs to guarantee land rights for farmers, ensuring that large commercial farms – which are bound to employ fewer people — co-exist with the millions of smallholder farms.”
According to Ezekwesili, smallholder farmers must gain access, not only to more productive seeds and other farm inputs, but also to finance, irrigation, research and technology. Equally important are land reforms, the building and maintenance of adequate infrastructure (farm- to-market roads, for example), and the implementation of effective post harvest marketing strategies.
Even in Rwanda, the Holy Father’s logic resonates. Addressing the 35th session of the Governing Council, last year, Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda said, “If the world is to meet the twin objectives of feeding the growing population and protecting the environment we will have to do what we know works…and that is targeted support and investment in smallholder farming to raise agricultural productivity, contribute to food security and reduce poverty, while protecting our planet.” Using Rwanda’s experience, Kagame said that the world’s growing population can get enough food only if smallholder farmers have access to basic modern farming tools including fertilizers, improved seeds and professional advices. What is clear is that in the absence of strong government like Rwanda, non government organization like Harambe might be the only hope of other African countries.
Finally, though the United Nations Food Agency, distributes food vouchers worth millions of dollar to Africans every year, the Holy Fathers vision, like axiom that says “give a child fish, he eats for a day, teach him to fish, he eats for life”, offers a more enduring solution to Africa’s food problems.
Chinwuba Iyizoba is an Engineer. He is also the author of “ After the Juju Man