Revolutionary ambition of AGRF 2018 must be sustained

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In early September 2018, about 2,800 delegates from 79 countries and high-level dignitaries, including current and former heads of states, international agencies, CEOs of global corporations and youth entrepreneurs, and techies involved in agriculture gathered in Kigali for this year’s African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF).

The convening happened against the backdrop of the sudden death of Kofi Annan, whose clarion call for a unique African green revolution in the mould of India, gave rise to the establishment of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) which hosts AGRF.

The monumental success of AGRF 2018 is clearly a tribute to the steering role played by Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) secretariat, led by former Rwanda agriculture minister, Dr Agnes Kalibata and funding partners; notably the Gates Foundation, Rockefeller and other multilateral donors.

But why would a consummate diplomat in the person of Kofi Annan focus his attention on agriculture rather than global governance issues?

AGRF’s theory of change appears to be premised on the idea that high-level political dialogue and exchanges are a prerequisite to policy coherence for agricultural transformation. In attracting and bringing heads of states, ministers, senior policy makers together with business actors around a conversation on agriculture, several policies, institutional and programmatic ideas become clear, as was witnessed in Kigali.

First, as an institutional design issue, agriculture must be entrenched as a high level political and business priority across the continent as it ought to have been. Left to travail at ministries of agriculture, often underfunded and poorly linked to the rest of government departments, agricultural transformation stands stunted in the intense resource competition, pitting it against seemingly more productive options such as industrialization and infrastructure – including the much-vaunted railway development.

Second, critical delivery required to transform agriculture cannot be driven at ministerial level. The mechanization agenda for instance, cannot be siloed in the ministry of agriculture. It must become an inter-ministerial and whole of governments’ effort. As it was argued by the Malabo Montpellier Panel at the AGRF 2018, sustainable agricultural growth above 4pc annually requires machinery uptake growth of no less than 2.5pc. In this trajectory, Kenya like several other African countries falls below the mark, with mechanization of its’ agricultural systems still way below 35pc.

The resulting low production levels is partly attributable to the mechanization deficit and measures that allow production of agricultural equipment at reasonable price should be considered, if scale is to be achieved. Regional manufacturing hubs that pool a number of countries can make such manufacturing viable and remove policy constraints. However, an agenda of this magnitude cannot entirely be based at the agricultural ministries but must become a national and sub-regional imperative. The AGRF 2018 #HowWillYouLead campaign, that seeks to rally public and private sector leaders in Africa and beyond to intensify agricultural transformation in the continent, represents this understanding.

Food is central to the sustenance of the human condition. The cyclical occurrences of drought and hunger, exacerbated by the climate change phenomenon, continues to place the continent’s population in a state of dependency and vulnerability. Rain fed agriculture can no longer guarantee the food and nutrition requirements of a continent, whose population is projected to reach a billion people by 2050. The assertion by Strive Masiyiwa, Chairman of Econet Group that “crops do not need rain they need water” resonated so much with the AGRF 2018 delegates, becoming a near slogan and a central theme of the conference.

As attested to by the Africa Agriculture Status Report 2018, countries whose agricultural sectors have registered marked transformation over the last decade, such as Ethiopia, have aggressively expanded irrigated farmlands. With 3.3 million hectares under irrigation out of 70 million hectares of arable land, Ethiopia’s food security turnaround was touted as a marker of success that craves continental replication. Thus, the Kigali Declaration on Farmer-led Irrigation for Smallholder Farming Enterprises was adopted urging “public investment, commercial financing, and capacity building that enable individual smallholders to afford, own, operate and benefit from irrigation systems.”

For a long time, the African Union’s agriculture-related commitments have been an invisible inconvenience, lost in the bureaucratic maze of the Addis diplomatic behemoth that is sold out on the peace and security agenda. Even the well-known Comprehensive African Agricultural Programme (CAADP) and the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods remain technical scientific niceties of little impact to the development of agricultural sectors at country level. And as demonstrated in Kigali, AGRF, has now become the apposite space that animates these continental commitments, vivifying them with data, content, funding ideas and implementation matrices.

While this revolution is yet to be televised, the young techies that straddled the ornate floors of Kigali Conference Centre at AGRF 2018 demystified agriculture and made it attractive to the burgeoning youth of our continent, who must take center stage in reimagining the sector for the 21st century. This was so much evident that when Deputy President Ruto, reminded the forum that the average age of a farmer in Kenya is 60 years against a mean age of 19, concern regarding the sustainability of the sector was unmistakable.

And as farmers across the continent continue their perennial dance to grow sufficient food and convey it from farm to fork for consumption by the millions of us, more must be done to make farming not only sustainable but profitable. Agriculture in Africa must cease being a struggle to survive and converted into a business that thrives. This, in my view, is what inspired Dr Kofi Annan, to make agriculture the centerpiece of his post UN Secretary General agenda.

(Sing’Oei is Legal Advisor & Head of Policy at the Deputy President’s Office)

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