Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reform land tenure to promote agriculture growth and food security

Land tenure is an institution, i.e. the rules that govern the legal and customary relationship among people with respect to land. These rules define access to use rights, control, transfer, obligations and restraints to land. Secure land tenure means possessing fully exclusive and transferable property rights. This creates a strong incentive to invest in among others fixed improvements to increase land productivity. Insecure land tenure discourages private investment and overall economic growth.

In Africa, many rural households rely on land for their livelihoods. Land is therefore critical for food security and poverty eradication. Increased access to land (with all other factors held constant) leads to an increase in agricultural activities such as food (and cash crop) production hence income growth and food security. In the contrary, loss of access to land reduces food production and income. Again, long term guaranteed access to exclusive use rights to land promotes resource use which results in more efficient and profitable agricultural production, therefore increasing food availability and income.

Inappropriate land policies are a constraint to growth and development and put the disadvantaged at risk of food insecurity. For example, many African communities have customary systems, where land is owned and controlled by traditional practices. Customary leaders will, at their discretion, lease or rent land out to whomever they deem worthy. Recently in Ghana, hundreds of farmers have had their land forcefully taken over by a biofuel firm which bought the land from the chiefs. There was apparently no consultation with the farmers who have not yet been compensated. This has caused a major food security issue for the affected farmers. In open access systems, there is no incentive to invest in good farming practices and fixed improvements as benefits will accrue to free-riders who do not contribute to developing the gains. For example in communal grazing areas, with unrestricted land use, high stocking rates lead to soil erosion and land degradation. This reduces productivity of the land in question and will necessitate the conversion of marginal land into productive use, thus causing further environmental damage. The reduced productivity has an effect on food security and income generation. In some areas, absence of land markets translates into the underutilization of land and land-based resources. Land markets may facilitate the transfer of land to the most effective users.

Food security and poverty reduction policies must take into consideration the links that access to land and land systems have with food availability, hunger, access to income/capital, and poverty. Land policies should take into account livelihoods, environmental issues and markets as these are directly linked to food availability and access.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Contending with the effects of climate change in Africa

Much of the policy, development, economic and humanitarian talk today is centred on climate change. Everyone is affected by climate change; however the most vulnerable are the rural populations whose main livelihood activities depend on rain-fed agriculture. The reasons for the vulnerability and food insecurity of these populations among others include poverty, decreasing agricultural productivity, poor infrastructure and market access, population pressure especially in marginal areas, increasing human and animal diseases, weak institutional and land tenure arrangements, etc.

To these vulnerable populations, climate change means 1) increased climate variability i.e. increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and 2) changes or shifts in the growing season, both of which affect food production and consequently food security. Consequently, poverty, hunger, malnutrition, environmental degradation, reduced dietary intake, distress sale of productive assets, and the like will increase as people strive to cope.

To contend with the effects of climate change should not only include mitigating climate change but also reducing vulnerability (adaptation) - employment of risk reduction and risk management strategies. These strategies should strengthen the adaptation capacity and coping strategies of poor communities thus enhancing their resilience and protecting their livelihoods. Governments should build appropriate management capacities, policies, institutions and partnerships that respond effectively to climate change as well as prevent physical and socio-economic damage, while at the same time promote land use planning and weather risk transfer. Governments should also strengthen their disaster preparedness, response and crisis management mechanisms.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Does biotechnology offer a solution?

The recent price hikes of food all around the world have created fear of increasing food insecurity in African countries. Much of the blame for the hikes has been put on speculations on the world markets. However, other factors have also contributed. Increased consumption of meat in growing economies has led to higher demands for grains on which the livestock feed. High oil prices, erratic and unreliable weather patterns (a possible symptom of the ongoing climate change), and increasing demand for biofuels, also play a role in changing the supply-demand relationship for food. What the African continent perhaps needs is to fully commit itself to endow in biotechnology.

African agriculture is in most parts extensive and subsistence. This means that few inputs such as fertilizers, agrochemicals and irrigation are used, and only the surplus is sold in markets. Such farming systems on their own cannot sustain the population of a country. Measures like increased soil productivity or increased crop productivity have to be undertaken. Soil productivity can be increased through organic manure, which may not be readily available, or inorganic fertilizers, which if not subsidized are usually unaffordable by farmers. Crop productivity can be increased through the use of pest resistant varieties, drought tolerant crops, high yielding varieties, all of which are good examples of biotechnological innovations.

Biotechnology is the purposeful and controlled manipulation of biological systems to manufacture or process useful products. Biotechnology has been successfully used to develop Bt corn, potatoes and cotton, which are pest resistant and so eliminates the need for expensive and toxic pesticides. Hybrid maize and pearl millet varieties that significantly increase maize and millet yields, disease-free cassava cultivars, disease resistant bananas; drought resistant soybeans are all part of the wider applications of biotechnology.

Theoretically, biotechnology has the potential to increase the supply of food and accordingly minimize price hikes. In practice however, other factors come into play. As mentioned above, demand for biofuels will divert cereals and other foods from consumption purposes to industrial purposes. High oil prices will have an effect on transport, processing and storage costs, which are factored into food prices. And unpredictable weather patterns may force farmers choosing crop varieties with lower, but more reliable, yields.

Adding to this is the fact that biotechnology is costly, and requires a large amount of investment in research and development. Well-trained extension officers are required to disseminate information to farmers. Knowledge and previous experience have to be channelled out of the universities and into the field. Furthermore, increased supply of food through biotechnology must go hand in hand with improved road networks to make markets accessible to farmers. Processing and storage facilities are required to maintain a constant supply of food in lean years and increase rural incomes through value-added products.

The success of biotechnology depends very much on collaboration between different government ministries, institutions of higher learning, NGOs and CBOs. It is not only about implementing the full use of this technique in agriculture in Africa, but equally important is to enforce it. Make it work, for now and for the future. This requires a committed government that views agriculture as an important vehicle to eradicate poverty and drive development.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

HIV not the only driver of AIDS in Africa

It has been over 25 years since AIDS was first publically reported. This virus has over the years transformed societies, influenced policies, and has been at the core of governments’ interventions especially in sub-Saharan Africa. There have been endless attempts to find a cure to this disease, none of which have yet been successful.

The evolution of AIDS is society has changed from being an abomination or cause of hysteria to a showbiz event. In some cases, politicians have argued that HIV does not cause AIDS and they were rightly criticized for it. What they should have been praised for, is raising the question of whether HIV solely causes AIDS. What is important now is not that knowledge of what causes AIDS but rather how to prevent the transmission of the disease. HIV together with a series of complex social and political factors causes AIDS.

Take the society drivers of HIV for example. Beliefs abound that having sex with a young virgin could cure AIDS. Of course science and common sense tells us that is not true. But looking deeper reveals the heart of the problem. Virginity has always been associated with purity, and in some societies AIDS victims are somehow considered unclean. The stigma against those infected, together with the need for acceptance encourages coherence to traditional dogma. In these same societies, counsel and information are derived from elders, traditional healers, and possible witch doctors whose word is deemed gospel truth. In the absence of more credible information about HIV/AIDS, all listeners will believe what they are told. In such cases, societal perceptions, more than just HIV would have aided and abetted AIDS.

Attempts at finding a cure for AIDS should therfore be concentrated as much in the societal and political realms as in the laboratories.

Friday, July 3, 2009

A missed opportunity for small holder farmers

Over the last two years, food prices especially of staples have increased at unprecedented rates. In many countries, the prices have doubled or tripled. Between March 2007 and March 2008, wheat and maize prices increased by 130% and 35% respectively. Rice prices increased by 80% in the period up to 2008.

The effect of increased food prices is felt worldwide especially by poor (both urban and rural) net food buyers. They reduce real income, which pushes poor people deeper into poverty and worsens food security. However, farmers may stand to benefit from high food prices. High prices result in higher revenue per unit of production which culminates into a higher profit margin. Also, high prices provide an incentive to farmers to increase production. As such the price hikes caused by growing food demand can be met by increasing food supply. Unfortunately this is theoretically sound but hardly plausible in practice. Under the current state of agriculture in Africa, it would be impractical to consider the high food prices as an opportunity for small holder farmers.

First of all, smallholder farmers lack the necessary means to increase agricultural productivity. Farmers cannot afford the much required seeds, fertilizers, and other agrochemicals to increase productivity. High input prices increase costs of production which reduce the profit.

Secondly farmers do not have access to markets because roads are poor or transportation is expensive. To take advantage of increased prices in food markets, farmers need to have access to them.

In addition, high food price increases do not often filter down to the farm-gate of smallholder farmers. Due to logistical constraints, they are forced to depend on middle men with whom they have little bargaining power.

Thirdly, a huge amount of farm produce is gets spoilt due to lack of storage and processing facilities, as well as value-adding systems.

A fourth reason is that small farmers are constrained in their access to credit and other financial services. Credit is an important source of capital to finance fixed and variable costs, as well as to cover other operating expenses in farming.

Finally, smallholder farmers do not have access to the latest market information with which to make production and supply decisions.

In order to truly capitalise on the price increases, Africa requires structural and policy reform. Appropriate investments in development oriented policies and programmes will increase the smallholder farmer’s potential to increase production and benefit from high food prices. Increased investment in agriculture is necessary both in the short and long-run.

Strategies to improve smallholder agriculture must start with making agriculture more favourable to smallholder farmers. An example would be to provide subsidised or cheap inputs (fertilizer and seed), credit, and information to farmers. Malawi has been successful in its efforts to increase agricultural production of the poor through provision of subsidized fertilizers and seed. Cheap inputs reduce production costs, giving small holder farmers a competitive edge in the formal economy.

Coupled with this is the need for improved infrastructure. Substantial investments are required to improve roads and railways. It is important for smallholder farmers to have direct access to well-functioning input and product markets. As such, the middle man is eliminated, or his influence is reduced therefore the high food prices translate to increased profit for farmers. Furthermore, farmers must have access to technology and other communication systems.

Because individual smallholder farmers do not possess much bargaining power, collective action (e.g. cooperatives) among these farmers is vital to make small holder farmers more competitive and sustainable. Through collective action, farmers gain economic power, and the unit transaction costs associated with marketing and distribution of farm produce are reduced. The South African government identified cooperatives as a means to empower the rural poor and smallholder farmers and as such increased its support to cooperative organisations by providing grants, loans, training, market and other resources.

To sum it all, a conducive policy environment is required if farmers are to benefit from the current high food prices. Although it is not known how long the food prices will stay high, government can never go wrong with increasing its support for farmers. Investment in agriculture has a compound effect on increasing rural income, improving food security, eradicating poverty, and thus economic development. Governments of Africa, through the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) have committed to increasing agriculture growth by 6 percent annually. This is good news for the continent as Agriculture-led development is the key to Africa’s development.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Famines in Africa

Africa is plagued with famines, many of which are triggered by natural disasters such as drought, locusts, livestock and crop disease. Recently, famines have increasingly been triggered or aggravated by conflict and war. The table below lists some African famines, their causes and estimated mortality statistics.

Year Location Causal triggers Estimated mortality
1902-1908 Nigeria Drought 5 000
1906-1907 Tanzania Conflict 37 500
1913-1914 Sahel, West Africa Drought 125 000
1917-1919 Tanzania Drought & Conflict 30 000
1922 Zimbabwe Drought 47
1929 Tanzania Drought 500
1943-1944 Rwanda Drought & Conflict 300 000
1949 Malawi Drought 200
1957-1958 Ethiopia Drought & Locusts 250 000
1966 Ethiopia Drought 50 000
1968-1970 Nigeria Conflict 1 000 000
1969-1974 Sahel, West Africa Drought 101 000
1972-1975 Ethiopia Drought 350 000
1974-1975 Somalia Drought 20 000
1980-1981 Uganda Drought & Conflict 30 000
1982-1985 Mozambique Drought & Conflict 100 000
1983-1985 Ethiopia Drought 800 000
1984-1985 Sudan Drought 250 000
1988 Sudan Conflict 250 000
1991-1993 Somalia Drought & Conflict 400 000
1998 Sudan Drought & Conflict 70 000
2003-2008 Zimbabwe??? Land reform???
2003- Sudan Drought & Conflict

Africa has the potential to eradicate famines. All that is required is political will and long-term commitment by national governments, regional bodies and the international community. Otherwise, many Africans will die or be pushed further into poverty and food insecurity in famines that can be prevented.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Poverty, Food Security and the Environment

Are poor people forced to degrade their environment in order to cope with food insecurity?

When hard times threaten poor people’s food security, they employ coping strategies to meet their immediate food needs, increase their disposable income, and preserve their asset portfolios. Some of these strategies are: over harvesting wild foods (leaves, roots and game meat); cutting trees to make charcoal for sale; clearing forests for cultivation; draining swamps and encroaching on other marginal areas; and over grazing. These activities have detrimental effects on the environment, particularly causing soil erosion and degradation. These problems are worsened by population pressure.

Are the poor people unaware of the consequences of their actions on the environment? They are most likely aware but often have no better alternative. For example a poor person who has to choose between selling his livestock and cutting trees to make charcoal will choose the latter. To the poor person, meeting an immediate need takes preference over a longer-term one.

Is it possible to create a sustainable food secure environment without undermining or destabilising the natural environment and resource base? Are the tradeoffs between food security and the environment reconcilable? Can environmental protection be achieved without destabilising the livelihoods of the poor people who depend on the environment for their survival?