Two women in a rice field in Senegal, where the African Development Bank is supporting a food security project. Photo by: AfDB

DES MOINES, Iowa — The African Development Bank is doubling down on agriculture, one of its five key priorities, with a strategy guided by business-minded agricultural development.

Greater cooperation and local investment in research — and getting new technologies in the hands of farmers — is key to the continent’s agriculture and food security needs, according to the bank.

In a series of speeches, press conferences, and interviews, AfDB President Akin Adesina and other bank staff added detail to their vision at the Borlaug Dialogue and World Food Prize, which this year honored Adesina with the prestigious annual award.

The bank launched two new initiatives, part of its “Feed Africa” strategy, one aimed at accelerating technologies across the continent and another focused on transforming the African savannahs into productive agricultural land. While both of those initiatives are focused on tackling productivity challenges, the bank is also focused on better connecting farmers to markets and enabling them to build stronger businesses.

“When we talk about making agriculture a business, we shouldn’t forget that the smallholder farmers we see today are business people. They just happen to be business people without access to technology, markets, and infrastructure,” Adesina said at a press conference. “What we’re trying to do with the strategy is create opportunities for them break barriers, chains and create new opportunities.”

The bank has committed to investing $24 billion into agriculture in 10 years, and Adesina, a former Nigerian agriculture minister who spent much of his career focused on the field, clearly believes that agriculture is key to lifting millions out of poverty and is committed to mobilizing governments and other partners to do it.

Harnessing technology

One of the messages Adesina stressed in Des Moines is that Africa needs stronger support for national agriculture research systems so that “we can take technology off the shelf where it gathers dust today and make sure it reaches farmers at scale,” he said.

“What’s needed is really a CGIAR system that works with national and regional institutions for one purpose — to feed Africa by rapidly scaling technologies,” Adesina said during his remarks at the conference.

There is water efficient, drought-resistant maize, types of cassava, and rice varieties that can improve yields, and there are biofortified beans and orange fleshy potatoes that can help tackle malnutrition. The problem, Adesina said, is that most of the scientific developments are not reaching farmers.

“We have more tools to transform agriculture than Asia had before the green revolution,” Adesina said. “What is needed is the will, the ability, and the commitment to take technology to scale and by so doing reach tens of millions of farmers.”

The Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation, or TAAT, initiative is aimed at bringing down some of the barriers preventing farmers from accessing the latest seed varieties and technologies that could improve their productivity.

The initiative intends to mobilize $1 billion to scale technology across Africa with the goal of lifting about 40 million people out of extreme poverty and producing about 120 million additional metric tons of food.

The partnership brings together CGIAR, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation, and national and regional agriculture research systems in what Adesina called the “biggest consolidation of efforts” to scale technologies across regions.

Thus far, 25 countries have confirmed an interest in the initiative, which would identify appropriate technologies, build warehouses, remove regulatory hurdles, and get technologies into the hands of farmers, along with the training to use them.

In part the initiative will work to bring together countries to agree on certain regulatory requirements for new seed varieties and technologies so that they aren’t slowed by processes in each country — delays that can last decades. The goal is to identify technologies in each ecological region and deploy them quickly because, as Adesina said several times, pests, insects, and other challenges don’t obey national boundaries.

TAAT will go to the bank’s board in November for approval, and barring a surprise, should launch with the board’s support. Once it launches, the AfDB will create a central warehouse that will house new technologies, be they seed varieties or other agricultural advancements.

Transforming the savannahs

Transforming African agriculture and finding ways to increase production to improve food security on the continent cannot be done without finding ways to make the savannahs more productive, Adesina said.

Africa has about 400 million hectares of savannah lands that could be cultivated, though only about 10 percent is used for that purpose now, according to Adesina.

Other regions in the world, most notably South America, have found ways to make their savannah’s productive agricultural lands. In order to learn from the lessons of South America, the bank is partnering with several institutions from the region to try to adapt some of the successes to the African context through the new Transformation of the African Savannah Initiative.

The initiative will bring about two million hectares of savannah in eight African countries — Ghana, Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, and Mozambique — to try to double production of maize, soybean, and livestock.

It will start with a pilot in Ghana next month, in partnership with the Agricultural Corporation of Brazil, CAMPO, which will build on the Brazilian example. In the 1970s, Brazil imported about two-thirds of the food it consumed while families spent nearly 50 percent of their net income to feed themselves, according to the former Minister of Agriculture of Brazil and Chairman of CAMPO Dr. Alysson Paulinelli, at the conference. Today the country exports about $100 billion in food items, he said.

More is needed

While both the new initiatives focus on improving yields, there are other political, regulatory, and business linkages that need to be tackled to allow farmers to work their way out of poverty.

Governments must invest more heavily in strengthening national agricultural research organizations, including paying scientists more competitively and investing in research infrastructure such as labs, Adesina said.

Africa needs organized farmer institutions, and stronger community leaders so that farmers can get political leaders to pay attention. Only with more attention, more rights, and a business approach can agriculture provide a future for the growing youth population on the planet, Adesina said, adding that supporting farmers’ land rights and access to markets is equally critical.

But ultimately transforming African agriculture will also be about industrializing agriculture — through more commercial farms and by creating more agribusinesses that add value to products locally, Adesina said. As that development happens, agribusinesses must be built in a way that doesn’t create environmental or social hazards or displace farmers but allows them to thrive.

Without finding ways to capture more of the value at the top of value chains, farmers in industries such as the cocoa industry won’t be able to work their way out of poverty, said Jennifer Blanke, AfDB vice president of agriculture, human, and social development. So, in the cocoa example, Ghana, and Ivory Coast are working together, despite the competition between two of the world’s largest cocoa producers, to create a holistic value chain approach that will create jobs and process cocoa locally.

Ultimately, while agriculture is but one of the bank’s five priorities, Adesina said he sees it as very much intertwined with the other four — after all, a boom in agribusinesses will require electricity and industrialization right along with it.

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About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.