Equality will help agricultural transformation in Africa


Transforming agriculture in Africa to provide sufficient nutritious foods, poverty reduction and economic growth is an essential task. This task preoccupies the minds of many in governments, businesses, bilateral donors, foundations, research organisations, NGOs and farmers. This September, the AGRF 2019 in Accra had a focus on modern digital agriculture and articulating an ambition for better progress, reflecting the complexities of this task. With almost three thousand participants annually, the AGRF plays a critical role helping foster partnerships that can accelerate progress for Africa’s green revolution.

One insight lingers in my mind after the event as I hadn’t come across it so plainly before: How equality in relationships and absence of hierarchy can determine progress for agriculture transformation. Simply put, can farmers sit down with scientists with mutual respect and a determination to overcome problems? Let me back-track a little…

In Accra, I attended an event on “How Israel became a world leader in agriculture and water – Insights for today’s developing countries”. I went to this session because I had little idea about what I might learn. Here is a link to the report that triggered the discussion and it is the source of the statistics in this blog, produced principally by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, with support from AGRA and Volcani International Partnerships.

Israel is very dry; two-thirds of the land is arid or semi-arid. It doesn’t rain much; it is a desert, and so naturally water is a problem. Most early immigrants had no prior farming experience. Despite overwhelming odds, Israel not only managed to create a remarkable agricultural transformation, securing national food security and thriving export industries; it also emerged as a global leader in agriculture and water management. For instance, it achieves greater productivity of milk per cow than the US and Europe; and achieves a post-harvest grain storage loss of only 0.5% compared to 2% worldwide.

While Israel’s experience was unique, there are insights for African countries particularly those seeking to catalyse agriculture in similar dry climes. One core lesson is that Israel spent one-third of its national budget on agriculture and water infrastructure through the 1950s and 1960s. The government genuinely prioritised agriculture in policies and programmes to support farmers. Less than ten African Governments reach the 10% budgetary contribution to agriculture today that they committed to in 2003. Those that do prioritise agriculture by spending decent sums in decent ways are experiencing substantial progress e.g. Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Revisiting the main theme of this blog, the most striking to me from Israel’s experience was the approach to problem-solving through collaborative innovation. The central focus for the several institutions of the research and extension services was the problems farmers faced. The determined efforts to overcome these problems were multi-disciplinary. Diverse disciplinary specialists sat around the table with farmers and worked on ambitious projects together. Efforts were encouraged to be highly creative, demanding completely new ways of doing things that had not been done before; indeed, specific support was provided by Government to help manage risk-taking.

I was fascinated by the discussion in the room that followed the presentation. It concentrated on the absence of hierarchy between farmers, successful scientists and extension staff. Israelis had a frontier mentality. Their focus was to get things done to survive and thrive. Farmers were respected; not looked down upon. This meant collaboration was dynamic and delivered high quality results. In Accra, it was rapidly remarked upon (I think by the Minister of Agriculture from Ghana) that the state of equitable relationships that existed in Israel does not exist in Ghana today due to existing socio-economic hierarchies that play out in society. These act as impediments to innovation and collective endeavour. I suspect a similar sentiment would exist in other African countries.

This barrier to progress will not change overnight.  Evolving cultural engagement in the agriculture sector towards better equality requires system-wide leadership that encourages collaboration and the breakdown of hierarchy and gender inequality. So, there’s good and bad news here – the good news is that progress will involve many stakeholders; and the bad news is that progress will involve many stakeholders…contributing to what is known as a complex problem. So, what might work to stimulate a systems change?

  • Building shared understanding of the effect that unequal power relationships can play in helping or hindering agricultural transformation is essential. The challenges that female farmers face in Africa, relative to men, realising the services they need to transform their farms, impedes agricultural transformation as well as their human rights.
  • Beyond this, identifying ways to build common commitments for change would be a valuable step, and most useful at sub-national level, finding ways to describe the desired outcome for how individuals and institutions interact across the agriculture space, and agreeing means to measure progress.
  • Specific interventions are essential. Leadership matters. For instance, leadership from research and extension agencies, the Government and companies can set the example for engaging with farmers as equals. I was interested to hear at the AGRF in Accra from Strive Masiyiwa how the two previous board chairs of the AGRF partners board (he and Koffi Annan) both annually spent time in the rural areas speaking with farmers to understand their realities. Changing the narrative of farming as valued by society and capable of delivering good livelihoods is half the battle. Researchers and civil servants can take a new approach to collaborative engagement.
  • Coordination between people and institutions, and proactive learning are key elements to keep system change going – and it can be the role of agriculture sector working groups at national level, and sub-national levels, to coordinate and feed collective learning.

As the leaders at the closing session of the AGRF 2019 noted, Africa’s green revolution has not yet come to pass. The period 2020-2030 is, in their view, destined to be the decade for this transformation. Despite an understandably high focus on applying modern technology, it is human interaction that must not be overlooked in the agricultural transformation process in Africa.  Better equality in relationships seems key to accelerating agricultural transformation.