Green revolution in Africa could feed the world's billions
HER bare feet coated with mud, Sabena Gitau trudged down then hillside to her banana plantation .
She cut several giant bunches of bananas, which she strapped to a motorbike to be taken to nearby Saba Saba town, 77km north of Nairobi, to be weighed, graded and sold.
A decade ago Gitau made the same 10km trip a couple of times a month, on foot, with her bananas on her back, earning about 420 shillings (R38) for the trek.
Today, after planting improved varieties and working as part of a cooperative to boost her access to markets, the 59-year-old grandmother earns 30000 shillings (R2 700) a month from her bananas, selling them at 13 shillings a kilo rather than three.
Gitau has bought seven dairy cows with some of her profits. She also recently planted 100 passion fruit vines.
As the world looks for ways to boost food production by at least 70% by 2050 to feed an increasingly hungry planet, many people are looking to sub-Saharan Africa - a region with 50 to 60% of the planet's unused arable land.
Experts say efforts like Gitau's banana project, better access to markets and information for small-scale farmers, improved transportation and the like - could be the blueprint for a 21st century agrarian revolution in Africa.
"Africa is now the last frontier in terms of arable land," said James Nyoro, the Rockefeller Foundation's managing director for Africa. "With the population growing to 9 billion, the rest of the world will have to depend upon Africa to feed it."
"I have no doubt whatsoever that Africa can feed itself and that Africa can be a major contributor to world food security," Namanga Ngongi, former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.
"If you only increase productivity by 50% in Africa, Africa will go from food deficit to food surplus."
The barriers that have so far held back Africa' agricultural success are formidable. They include lack of land tenure, particularly for women, and shrinking plot sizes; limited use of irrigation and fertiliser; unreliable water supplies and inadequate access to credit.
Unpredictable weather, degraded soils, inefficient markets and poor infrastructure compound the problem, while a history of political instability, conflict and poor governance has made investors reluctant to pump money into agriculture.
But experts say the formula for increasing yields for African smallholders, who make up 80% of the continent's farmers, is relatively simple. Just organise them into larger groups, provide them with better materials and training and connect them to markets.
"In a sense, it's a no brainer," said Gordon Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College, London. "Give them fertiliser. Give them seed. Give them water. And they can do it."
One of the biggest challenges lies right at the start of the chain: seed production. "If you're able to have good seed and appropriate fertiliser, and on time, I think really the production side of agriculture would probably be resolved," said Ngongi.
In drought-prone parts of Kenya, as few as 10% of farmers buy seeds.
"They just save seed and recycle," said James Karanja, director of a private seed company.
Rajiv Shah, head of the US Agency for International Development, believes greater investment in agricultural research is the number one priority for Africa to achieve a green revolution.
Farmers need information about improved seeds and training in better crop management to maximise their yields.
Crucially, after decades of neglect, African governments appear to be waking up to the importance of investing in agriculture - if not for food security, then for political stability. -Reuters