Shifting Africa from aid to food production

Africa has the potential to feed itself. With some 150 million people in sub-Saharan Africa threatened with drought, hunger, and malnutrition, it is ironic to learn that the continent has sufficient land, human, and technological potential to feed itself.

Yet this was one of the points stressed at a recent workshop on the implementation of accelerated food strategies in Africa organized by the United Nation's World Food Council.

The workshop, held at the African Development Bank headquarters in Ivory Coast, was attended by representatives from 20 African countries. But Ethiopia, the most publicized of the drought-stricken countries, boycotted.

A major UN meeting is convening in Geneva today to raise $1.5 billion to meet the immediate food needs of 20 drought-stricken African countries.

At the Abidjan meeting, international aid donors were urged to better integrate emergency food aid into long-term food-production programs.

``Donors need to set a better example in enforcing on themselves priorities relevant to Africa's longer-term needs,'' the World Food Council's executive director, Maurice Williams, said.

``There is still a large component of aid directed more to donor domestic interests than to any realistic assessment of African priorities,'' he added.

Aid donors have often failed to coordinate their efforts, and the food aid has been unbalanced and indigestible for local people. The arrival of huge quantities of food aid also tends to depress local prices and discourage farmers from planting.

Compared with Asia and Latin America, Africa has enormous agricultural resources, a senior World Food Council official, Alain Videl-Naquet, pointed out. In the early 1970s, per-capita food production in Asia and Africa was comparable. Now Asian countries such as India and China have left the Africans far behind.

Efforts are being made to work the Asian food ``miracle'' in Africa. African delegates expressed a desire to benefit from the Asian experience in areas such as pricing, irrigation, training, research, and agricultural extension services.

Large-scale irrigation schemes have usually proved costly failures in Africa. And the ``Green Revolution'' is still a mirage. The high-yield cereal hybrids that transformed Asian agriculture have atrophied in Africa while successful local varieties have still to be developed.

Some African countries -- notably Kenya and Cameroon -- are setting up national food strategies to better integrate food production, distribution, and storage in national development planning. A few others, including as Malawi, Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Ivory Coast, have also achieved agricultural success.

Although little can be done to prevent drought, Africa's food crisis has been worsened by ``men and governments,'' the food experts noted.

But in the last few years there have been ``important changes'' in reorienting government policies to realize Africa's agricultural potential, Mr. Williams said.

More attractive incentives are being offered to small farmers, considered the key to solving Africa's food crisis. Producer prices are being raised and credit facilities improved. Better supplies of seeds, fertilizers, and insecticides are being provided.

As one African food expert put it: ``We don't want to remain dependent on food aid. Instead of just giving us cereals, show us the way to grow more food.''

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