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Feeding Africa

With so many other issues vying for our attention, it’s easy to forget the critical importance of food security. Food, water and shelter come at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and, without fulfilling these, other needs barely register. Or, to put it more simply, “a man with food has many problems, a man without food has one.”

Surrounded as we are in the industrialised world by a wide choice of affordable food, it is all too easy to forget that there are still hundreds of millions of people who don’t enjoy that luxury. Enormous strides have been made in providing food for billions more people over the last half century, but there remains a stubborn core of global hunger, with 800 million people, predominantly now in Africa, still suffering from chronic malnutrition.

We know that this is to a large degree down to poverty. Some families simply can’t afford food, while lack of roads means that food cannot be moved where it is needed. But we still need to produce the food in the first place. And as agricultural productivity goes up poor farmers can begin to lift themselves out of poverty. At the end of the day, it is prosperity that will solve the problem of chronic malnutrition.

With this in mind, it is good to see that the World Food Prize has been awarded to someone who has helped address this vital issue (Africa agriculture pioneer wins 2017 World Food Prize). The winner – Dr Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank – has been honoured for working to improve the productivity of the continent’s farming sector. This is not just about feeding people, it is a necessary first step in a transition that will allow Africans to improve their quality of life and their living standards and generate sustained economic growth.

It is easy to forget that in 1950, with many countries still emerging from a catastrophic global conflict, there were only about 2.5 billion people (a little more than a third of today’s population), while the number of malnourished was at least equal to today’s total. At that time, economic development outside Europe, North America and Australasia was low and broadly similar across swathes of Asian and African countries. Few people then would have believed that countries such as South Korea and other SE Asian tiger economies would achieve the level of development we see today. They would be astonished to see the transformation of the Chinese economy.

Meanwhile, many sub-Saharan African countries essentially stagnated. Their populations grew as modern medicine began to reduce horrendously high mortality rates, but failed attempts at running a planned economy combined with high levels of corruption and rampant tribalism benefitted no-one except for a handful of kleptocrats. Weak government, political instability and civil conflict (plus proxy wars funded by the Cold War powers) provided an environment where ordinary people struggled to survive, let alone prosper.

Fortunately, many countries are now becoming more peaceful, with a degree of political stability. We may not approve of all the regimes, but the Asian economic miracle didn’t occur in free and open democracies either. Peace and stability form another part of the base of the pyramid of needs. Many more Africans are now beginning to realise they have a lot of problems, not just having enough to eat.

It’s worth reading what Dr Adesina had to say about his work:

"You know, you can find Coca-Cola or Pepsi anywhere in rural Africa, so why can't you find seeds or why can you not find fertilisers? It is because the model that was used to distribute those farm inputs were old models based on government distribution systems, which are very, very inefficient. So I thought the best way to do that is to support rural entrepreneurs to have their own small shops to sell seeds and fertilisers to farmers. We started these agro-dealer networks and they spread over Africa. It brought farm inputs closer to farmers and it encouraged the private sector into the rural space."

One of the key points is that this is not about international aid. Developed countries have poured billions of dollars into Africa over many decades for essentially zero return. There is a place for aid, particularly in emergencies, but it can create dependency if not spent on projects that then become self-sustaining. Even worse, too much of it seems to have ended up in the bank accounts of the very kleptocrats who mismanaged the economy in the first place. Providing effective credit and avoiding corruption were important elements in Dr Adesina’s work as a minister in Nigeria (see President of African Development Bank wins 2017 World Food Prize).

Another point is that this removes the role of the state in supplying the agricultural sector. Considering that free enterprise has driven growth across the world over the centuries, it is surprising that so many people still distrust the profit motive and regard state control as essentially benign. Ideology apart, it behoves policymakers to take note of what actually works. In this case, facilitating the growth of small shops run by rural entrepreneurs is clearly more effective than expecting a bureaucracy to define and administer a flexible system that meets the needs of farmers.

But perhaps the most important point is that we shouldn’t deny the benefits of prosperity to poor people in subsistence economies, based on rich world views of what is right. The World Food Prize was founded by Dr Norman Borlaug, the American plant breeder credited with leading the Green Revolution (for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize). By breeding high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat and rice, he enabled millions of farmers across Asia and South America to produce bigger crops and feed their families.

Environmentalists have criticised the Green Revolution for increasing fertilizer use and damaging the environment, but without acknowledging the fact that hundreds of millions of people would have died if things had stayed as they were. The Population Bomb may really have exploded. Today, some development agencies are still wedded to the idea that organic farming is the way forward, without acknowledging that yield increases would be limited and even more habitats would be destroyed as more land was farmed. There is a school of thought that does not want today’s poor to ‘repeat the mistakes’ that the West made.

Of course, progress such as in the Green Revolution can have a downside for some people, at least in the short term. Even in the longer term, a more efficient farming sector and a growing economy will see large numbers of people leave the land and cause social disruption. But ask most people and they would jump at the chance of a better standard of living, rather than just being a better-fed subsistence farmer. Let’s hope there are more Dr Adesina’s out there and let’s hope that governments allow them to get on with their work.