African nations begin steps to give top priority to agriculture

Despite a series of continental crises -- drought, famine, and most recently locusts -- all is not lost in Africa, say UN farm experts. They argue that most African countries could reverse trends and feed themselves by the year 2010, provided they give agriculture priority and change farm policies.

In a recently released report, ``African Agriculture: The Next 25 Years,'' the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims to go further than earlier FAO and World Bank studies by proposing a series of practical measures for Africa's economic recovery.

The proposals were discussed by some 30 African agricultural ministers at an FAO regional ``food'' summit that took place this week in Yamoussoukro, Ivory Coast.

The report warns, however, that unless vigorous action is taken, there will be ``repeated and massive famines'' and ``food imports could bankrupt even prosperous African countries.'' By the year 2010, Africa could have to import nearly half its cereal needs, more than 100 million tons a year. Per capita food output has fallen nearly 20 percent since 1961, while Africa's population is growing at an annual rate of 3 percent. Yet, 20 years ago most of Africa fed itself.

African nations are now being encouraged to allocate 20 to 25 percent of public investment to agriculture. The FAO report notes that most African countries -- led by Zaire and Ghana -- have taken ``politically courageous'' steps to change their economies and give priority to the small farmer. More than 20 countries have devalued their currencies and increased prices paid to farmers. The private sector has been encouraged to take over agricultural marketing and distribution from the state.

The FAO report places greater emphasis than some earlier reports on the need for a strategy of ``conservation-based resource development'' and management through community participation.

The long-term solution for much of Africa's agricultural problems still lies in the granting of land ownership. But, in the short term, new programs should involve communities more closely with the agriculture programs, and adopt a ``bottom-up'' rather than a ``top-down'' approach, says the FAO. Thus, the agency is calling for greater support of the farmer in four areas:

Inputs: The most urgent need is for improved supplies of fertilizers, seeds, pesticides, and farm machinery ``at the right time and price.''

In view of the shortage of foreign exchange that most African nations face and the unlikelihood of a major increase in external aid, the FAO recommends increased aid ``in kind.'' More aid should come in the form of fertilizers, tools, and seeds.

Incentives: ``African farmers are no different from elsewhere: If they are paid to produce more, and can profit from so doing, they will,'' says the report. They must be able to afford and obtain fertilizer and other inputs, their crops must be able to compete with other -- imported -- cereals on the market, and they must be able to buy consumer items.

Institutions: Lack of trained manpower will be a major problem for at least the next 15 years and major efforts are needed to intensify practical training, research, and extension services -- local sources for agriculture needs. Women, the main food producers, should be given the right to own land so that they can have the same access to credit as men.

Infrastructure: Better roads, railways, and ports are needed to transport crops to market and to move fertilizers and other inputs to the farms.

While many African countries have already made much progress in changing their policies, international donors have ``further to go,'' the report says. It urges donor nations to write off debts of the poorest countries, grant more flexible aid terms, finance more small-scale farm projects, and increase cooperation with nongovernmental aid organizations.

Finally, Africa needs a fairer deal from the industrialized world. ``It makes no sense,'' says the FAO, ``to donate food to Africa while attempting to preserve a world market that pays artificially low prices for African produce.''

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