The greening of Africa

THOSE intensive appeals of years past to counter African famine with emergency food aid may not be so necessary in the years ahead. Slowly, and far less dramatically than India, Africa is undergoing its own green revolution. Welcome news. Africa's challenge in becoming self-reliant in food production has been much tougher than India's. Roughly the same proportion of people - three-fourths - live off the land. Yet the population of Africa is growing faster than that of any other continent. Its food production over the last decade is up 20 percent, but per capita output is down by 11 percent. Africa, once a net exporter of food, is now a net importer; India has shifted from importer to exporter, at least in food grains.

African farmers have more land per person than India, but their soil is sandier, less rich. Africa's climate is drier, and irrigation efforts are less widespread. Africa's agricultural research efforts are newer and less extensive.

Economic policies that discriminate against farmers and discourage them from growing more food are another key reason Africa has lagged behind. Civil wars and limited road networks greatly hamper growth and distribution of food.

But Africa has begun to make some important changes.

Agricultural research efforts, particularly in Nigeria, Kenya, and Zimbabwe, have been significantly strengthened. Fortunately, research funding is now more coordinated internationally and less sporadic. Scientists from dozens of foreign countries now focus on Africa's problems with the same intensity they reserved for India two decades ago.

The research is beginning to show results. Some successful efforts to prevent soil erosion have been developed. Over the last decade experiments in Nigeria with cassava, a starchy edible root, have produced varieties that will grow without fertilizer or pesticide, producing yields 18 times as high as usual.

Major challenges remain.

Africa's most successful high-yield crop over the years has been a hybrid maize developed in the '50s in Zimbabwe, but it fares poorly in dry weather, and many farmers have been unwilling to risk planting it.

Some research is transferable. But often the climate and other conditions are so specialized that localized research is necessary.

High-yield varieties of sorghum and millet developed in India, for instance, have been tried in Africa, where the crops are staples; results have not been so successful, partly because African farmers have resisted adding costly fertilizers and pesticides.

Africa has also been looking at its management and administrative policies with an eye to change. Currencies have been overvalued in many nations and food prices kept deliberately low in deference to city consumers, cheating farmers out of a fair price and limiting exports.

Many nations now admit the need for change. Zambia, for instance, recently devalued its currency and raised producer prices, netting a dramatic increase in food production.

The evidence of progress is clear. Africa's strides forward may be less dramatic than India's, but Africa's progress deserves wide notice and support.

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