Realizing the Promise and Potential for African Agriculture


Sun, June 20, 2004

June 20, 2004 —

Enhanced Application of Science and Technology Can Stimulate Africa's Agricultural Sector

NEW YORK -- Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs, says a new report by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), an organization created by 90 of the world's science academies. 

There is no single technological solution for the many problems facing agriculture in Africa.  Therefore, the report offers a number of concrete steps that the scientific community -- working closely with farmers and representatives from governments and private industry -- can take to avert famine and relieve suffering for millions of Africans in the future.  The report, Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture: Science and Technology Strategies for Improving Agricultural Productivity and Food Security in Africa, was presented today to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the United Nations.  The IAC study panel that drafted the report comprised 18 experts, many of them from Africa.

Four farming systems now in use in varying degrees across Africa show the most promise for reducing malnutrition and improving agricultural productivity, the report concludes.  They are:
·    The maize-mixed system, which is based primarily on maize, cotton, cattle, goats,
      poultry, and supplemental nonfarm work;
·     Cereal/root crop-mixed system, based on maize, sorghum, millet, cassava, yams,
       legumes, and cattle;
·     Irrigated system, based on rice, cotton, vegetables, rain-fed crops, cattle, and
       poultry; and
·     The tree crop-based system, anchored in cocoa, coffee, oil palm, and rubber, and
       involves yams, maize, and nonfarm work as well.

Within each of these systems, policy-makers, scientists, and farmers should explore all S&T options, including both conventionally bred and genetically modified plants; chemical and organic fertilizers; irrigation; and strategies that integrate pest, soil, and nutrient management.  Moreover, an approach that examines factors which define, limit, and reduce crop yield, as well as those which interrupt food distribution, should be used to identify problems and potential solutions, the report says.  In the near term, stakeholders also should take greater advantage of information and communication technology, and encourage local production of agricultural machinery and equipment to reduce Africa's dependence on industrialized countries for such goods.  Farmers must be key players in all of these efforts. 

The report calls for the creation of African Centers of Agricultural Research Excellence to undertake basic research that can lead to the development of new technologies to improve agricultural productivity.  These centers, which would supplement work done by national agriculture agencies, should be owned and governed by Africans to help curtail the flight of the continent's agricultural scientists, who often seek opportunities in other industries or parts of the world.  Farmers should be tapped to help identify relevant avenues of research for the centers.

On the whole, African governments should significantly increase investments in agricultural R&D institutions.  The continent's agricultural science community cannot flourish if it continues to depend upon foreign aid for approximately 40 percent of its budget, the panel said.  Likewise, African governments, with support from donor agencies, should create a range of incentives and opportunities for scientists to stay and work in their countries.  Government leaders also must invest more in science and technology at all levels of education to create environments that can attract more students to these fields.

Vibrant market economies and effective economic policies are essential to helping poor farmers gain financial stability and improving food security, the report adds.  African governments must increase investments in rural infrastructure -- such as roads, information and communication technology, and food storage technology.  Plus, governments must ensure that appropriate food quality and safety standards and regulations are in place and enforced.  African nations should work together to support such standards, and also to eliminate regional trade barriers, increase research capacity, and expand Africans' opportunities in international markets.  Trade barriers with nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes the world's largest economies, should be reduced.  And OECD members should help developing countries in Africa meet food quality and safety standards and enhance their ability to make sound decisions about agricultural and economic policy -- with the goal of strengthening Africa's position in global agriculture markets.

To bring these recommendations to life, the panel called for innovative S&T pilot programs to be launched in all four priority farming systems.  These experiments should aim to develop real solutions to problems in African agriculture, and empower the continent's farmers.  The U.N. secretary-general, in consultation with the African Union, should pinpoint appropriate international, national, and regional institutions to carry out pilot projects. 

The study panel was co-chaired by Speciosa Wandira Kazibwe, past vice president of Uganda; Rudy Rabbinge, dean, Graduate Schools, Wageningen Agricultural University, Wageningen, Netherlands; and M.S. Swaminathan, past president of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences of India, and chair, Board of Trustees, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Taramani, Chennai, India.

'This report addresses key research needs, ways to grow and protect Africa's pipeline of future agricultural scientists, and economic policies that can stimulate trade in Africa ', said Bruce Alberts, IAC co-chair and president of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.  Goverdhan Mehta, IAC co-chair and former president of the Indian National Science Academy, said, 'Because the issues are extremely important and complex, the study calls for effective collaboration among all stakeholders to make its vision of African agriculture a reality'.

In 2000 the leaders of the world's national science academies formed the InterAcademy Council, headquartered at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, to mobilize the world's best scientists and provide expert guidance to international bodies such as the United Nations and the World Bank.  IAC's consensus studies are subjected to intensive international peer review to ensure that they are free of national or regional bias.  Upcoming IAC reports will focus on such topics as global transitions to sustainable energy systems and the role of science in World Heritage Natural Sites, which are places around the world that the United Nations and more than 100 countries have agreed to help preserve because of their outstanding cultural, ecological, or scenic value.

The IAC, headquartered in Amsterdam, Netherlands, is a nongovernmental organization that provides advice on a project-by-project basis.  It is funded by private foundations and international organizations.  Its governing board comprises the presidents of 15 academies of science from Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Third World Academy of Sciences.

Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the Netherlands Ministry of Development Cooperation. 

A panel roster and other information about the IAC and its membership is available at

Vanee Vines
Vanee Vines
Senior Media Relations Officer
Office of News and Public Information, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.
Albert Koers
Albert Koers
Executive Director
InterAcademy Council, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Phone+31 020 551 0766