A key series of efforts to encourage farmers to produce more food goes on quietly, out of the headlines, in a dozen African capitals. Solidly based on capitalism and private enterprise, it has three main aims:
1. Paying farmers more for their crops. 2. Dismantling government monopolies on buying and selling food, and, 3. Raising food prices in the cities which are kept artificially low for political reasons.
The prime movers: the United States, the World Bank, the United Nations World Food Program and other food aid donors, working together in countries such as Mali (whose government cereals board was cited by one report for ''acute mismanagement and huge deficits'' before reforms began) and Kenya.
The weapon, as described by officials in Rome, Washington, London, and a number of African capitals: calibrating and measuring out Western food and financial aid on condition that governments make changes that donors want to see.
Two countries, Tanzania and Ghana, have turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in reluctant but definite recognition that their experiments with socialist agriculture have failed. Lacking incentive or skilled management, farmers produced less and less.
In Kenya today the US wants to end regulations that no private individual may transport more than five 90-kilo (200-lb.) bags of grain across a district border. Only the government can do so.
With the onset of severe drought, the regulation has been tightened to prevent any such private transport. The government insists on retaining control, to stop hoarding and to prevent smuggling. Kenyan officials are involved in the grain trade, since Kenya has no conflict-of-interest laws that would prevent them.
Washington wants to see 1 million bags sold on the private market each year, one-fifth of total sales.
The Kenyans plead that they can do nothing until the current drought, the worst in 50 years, is over. US officials have agreed to postpone, but say the reform must be made when grain production gets back to 90 percent of the average for the last 10 years.
The US approach is not limited to Kenya alone: ''It's the cutting edge of what we plan in other countries as well,'' says a senior official.
So far, donor efforts to generate reform have met with mixed results. The efforts are still fairly new. Young, inexperienced, centralized governments have been reluctant to loosen state control, or admit that their food policies are wrong.
The West has had little recent influence in military/Marxist Ethiopia, or Angola, or Mozambique. Other smaller countries still have a long way to go.
Politics is always involved. In Kenya, not only the drought blocks rapid progress, but some senior politicians are still reluctant to recognize the scale or scope of needed reforms. The civil service reportedly agrees with Western donors.
The unprecentedly bad drought in Kenya, especially in the north and east, means the government needs 1.1 million tons of extra grain in the year which began Oct. 1. The US is helping with 120,000 tons of corn and wheat, and officials believe another 120,000 will be needed. It is giving three types of development aid: buying imports, providing food grants, and some money to import fertilizer.
Among the strings attached: When the Kenyan government buys grain from farmers it must pay cash on the nail instead of issuing promissory notes and making farmers wait a year for their money, as happens now. The World Bank is also being firm. It is refusing to issue a third major structural loan until Kenya complies with conditions for the second.
The US has agreed to postpone the effective date of some Kenyan reforms, such as cash payments to farmers, until next Jan. 1.
Meanwhile, US aid is also aimed at another long-term effort to boost good production: a 15-20 year effort to channel agricultural research into helping small landholders, who make up 55 percent of farmers here.
Until now, new hybrid maize varieties have boosted yields on large holdings. Because they take 128-130 days to grow, as against 80 days for older maize, small farmers using it have found themselves unable to use the extra 40-50 days for beans and other secondary crops.
Smallholders are also more vulnerable to drought and crop diseases. The result: the output of large farms has jumped to 60 bags an acre but smallholders are still down at six to eight bags an acre.
Needed: a new 80-day hybrid for maize, especially as Kenya's population is now doubling every 17 years.
In smaller French-speaking Mali, fighting erosion, the encroaching Sahara, and drought, donors have in effect ganged up on the government since 1980 to demand price and market changes.
''For heaven's sake don't say that the Mali effort has succeeded,'' says one Western aid official.
''But you can certainly say we are all trying hard.''
In 1980 donors promised Mali 250,000 tons of food over five years in return for farmer incentives and an end to the monopoly on marketing by OPAM, the state cereals monopoly.
Complications set in at once. US aid was withheld for the first two years until a dispute over what Mali did with US food aid in the 1970s was resolved. Drought has cut production. Yet OPAM has made some reforms. It has turned over transport of grain largely to private hands, and cut its losses in half.
The government worries about losing control over stocks and about government mills grinding to a standstill without their safety-cushion monopoly. Food aid provided by the US and the World Food Program is sold by the Mali government to consumers and the money helps pay farmers more to produce. City prices are gradually raised.
Another country winning applause for reforms is Ghana.
Under pressure from the IMF, Ghana has devalued its currency (the cedi) by 93 percent, made interest rates more flexible, and decontrolled all but 23 prices. It has also lifted prices paid to farmers for cocoa, the country's main export, from 12,000 cedis ($4,560) per ton in early 1983 to 30,000 cedis ($11,400) in May 1984.
World Bank and US officials, noting that Ghana's performance has not received much publicity, point out that for all its other difficulties, the government in Accra has nonetheless committed itself to continue its reforms.
Meanwhile, Senegal raised food prices paid to farmers in 1984 and gave village cooperatives access to credit.
Reports from Mozambique indicate growing awareness that the Soviet state-farm system hasn't worked.
Uganda has raised prices to farmers for coffee, tea, tobacco, and cocoa, while tea and cotton producers can sell and export directly rather than through government boards.
Tanzania has devalued its shilling by 40 percent and lifted some subsidies; Zaire has devalued its zaire by 500 percent and raised payments to farmers.
Tomorrow: Meeting the challenge