Kofi Annan and Africa’s Green Revolution

Former UN Chief, Mr Kofi Annan’s suggestion that Africa needs a “Green Revolution” reminds me of a recent encounter with a professor at the University of Ottawa who asked me, “So, Kofi, how are Africans coping with the global food soaring prices?”

Former UN Chief, Mr Kofi Annan’s suggestion that Africa needs a “Green Revolution” reminds me of a recent encounter with a professor at the University of Ottawa who asked me, “So, Kofi, how are Africans coping with the global food soaring prices?”

I answered that there is no simple answer, and that what the food crisis teaches Africa is that Africa need is a new thinking in its agricultural productivity.

Annan and the professor’s concern about Africa’s food situation raise concerns about the issue of agricultural revolution in Africa, 51 years after independence from colonial rule.

Annan’s statement that Africa’s future lies in a “Green revolution” that would propel African farmers “dramatically” to “increase their output so that Africa can feed itself and not be dependent on food aid,” reveal abysmally Africa’s low food productivity that has continued since independence and that appears to have been thrown off-course by the current global food price increases.

Before Annan’s remarks, commentators have been worried about the impact of the global food prices on Africa, as the poorest region in the world, and questioned whether Africa’s low food productivity will be able to cope considering the fact that Africa depends heavily on foreign food. Said Annan, “I think no question is more important for the future of our continent” than for Africa to feed itself and “not be dependent on food aid.”

But the gap between Africa feeding itself and heavily minimizing itself from foreign food dependency is very wide. The Green Revolution is about Africa feeding itself through itself.

But Africa is in a difficult situation. Africa’s per hectare farm yields are only about one-third of Asia and one-tenth of United States’, and the troubled situation is worsened by rapid population growth.

In 2005, according to various international agencies, Africa’s agriculture produced 3 per cent less per capita than in 2000 and 12 per cent than in 1975.

While Annan, chair of the new Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, raises important questions about resolving Africa’s food crisis, most of what he said isn’t new: “aid to the hardest hit areas in Africa and a pro-poor approach to raising productivity and food security in Africa.”

How is Africa to do this? Annan answers that, “In the long term, there a coalition of African governments together with researchers, civil society, the private sectors and donors are to be formed with the aim of instigating food security on the continent.”

A laudable idea, but an old and unstimulating one. What Annan has to know is that African agricultural issues have become elitist and African governments don’t invest enough in agriculture, despite immense wealth circulating in Africa, making what drives productivity not in the hands of average African farmers, who still use awkward tools but still demonstrate superb ancient wisdom, judgement, and remarkable skills.

One solution is balancing technology (and science) with traditional system of farming practices in such a way that African farmers’ productivity will increase and their incomes grow.

In There is no Green Revolution for Africa, Dan Gardner, of The Ottawa Citizen writes that, “if Africa productivity were to rise even to Asian levels, much of the current food crisis would vanish – and many of the poorest people on earth would be far better off…Traditional farming techniques are good enough to keep farmers alive – barring the occasional famine – but they aren’t enough to lift people out of poverty.”

Annan, Gardner and others talk of appropriation of science in revolutionalizing Africa’s farming. Such practices have brought the Europeans and Asians out of low food productivity and advanced productivity.

It is incomprehensible why 51 years after independence, Africa didn’t followed suit the European and Asian paths and is still mired in low farming practices and food shortages that have been worsened by the on-going global food predicament.

The ability of the Asians, who were far behind Africa in food production in the 1960s, to turn their low farming productivity around since the 1960s resulted in what came to be known as the “Green Revolution.”

But what might have partially inhibited Africa’s farming revolution since the 1960s, as Gardner, drawing from Robert Paarlberg’s Starved for Science, argues that “The Green Revolution never came to Africa mainly because rich countries focused their resources on Asia…Over the last 20 years, the donor community has effectively stopped assistance for agricultural modernization in Africa.”

The question is why should the rich countries focus on Africa’s food? What are Africans themselves doing, especially in producing their own native food?

Playing with population growth, over the years Africans have not invested in their own traditional food but more on commercial crops and dependent on foreign food to the detriment of their future food security. Where are Africa’s food planners since the 1960s to now?

The central argument isn’t playing with the global food “cultural shift” (the craze for organic food), agricultural technology, “industrial farming,” and agricultural science via genetic modification but how Africa will concentrate on the production of its traditional food not only for its health benefits but also its security.

In this sense, Annan’s well-intentioned “African Green Revolution,” while it may call for capacity building that will help “increase the resilience and reduce vulnerability” of African farmers, a new regime of African farming policies and practices that balances tradition practices with modernization, and that also draw from the experiences of the Asian “Green Revolution” and Annan’s own charm to bring in donors will help materialize Annan’s “African Green Revolution” dream.

Contact: kako064@uottawa.ca