Sep 9, 2021 | Blog

Insights: Are we Walking the Path to Change?

Pathways to recovery and resilient food systems have been the focus of this year’s AGRF, and in the last session of day three a panel were asked if we are walking the path to change.

There was some dissent about whether we are currently on the right track. Dr. Usha Zehr, Director and Chief Technology Officer, MAHYCO thought yes, but that the needle is moving too slowly and we need to pick up the pace. The Malabo Declaration said we would end hunger by 2025, but it’s already 2021 and we are nowhere near that goal. Although a brilliant document, not just promising an end to hunger, but electricity for all, and many other targets, it is all still just on paper. Things are definitely happening too slowly, and there is still a big difference between what is said and what is done. The current pandemic as an example. Everyone understands the need for vaccination and we have the capability to manufacture vaccines locally, so why has the intellectual property issue not been resolved?

The view of the private sector is that the issues have been overcomplicated. There were clear commitments in the Malabo declaration, yet here we are talking about food systems, using unnecessarily sophisticated talk, when we should really be heading back to basics and returning to the root of the problem.  

Certainly it was agreed we should stop talking about Africa when it’s a continent of 54 different countries, not just one place. And because of that, there can’t be just one solution. Humans are one out of 8.7 million species and that needs millions of solutions, not just one. To that end a resilient food system has to be diversified at every stage. There is no golden solution because people don’t live in silos, they live in the real world, and they probably don’t want to hear about food systems, rather what actually needs to be done – starting by moving from paper to action.

Just like in telecoms – Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog whole stages in agriculture, and there is new thinking that value add should be closer to the source, not the consumer, as it is with cacao. The continent needs to start capitalising on the good things it has going for it –  incredible resources like solar and wind that can power things like irrigation systems. But its most valuable resource is the youth of the population, eager to work and eager to innovate. The value chain is capable of absorbing them, but to really make a difference we need to go beyond the value chain and create an environment where our young people can create their own SMEs. For that they need public/private partnership, because nobody can go it alone. The private sector has so much knowledge, yet this is often lost when scientists go back to the West to further their careers – we need them here to train our young farmers, because we all know agriculture can transform Africa.

The value chain also needs to focus on infrastructure. A bumper tomato harvest means the price drops so low farmers can’t give them away, yet if there was the necessary infrastructure they could be turned into ketchup or tinned and the farmer receive a portion of the added value. At the moment farmers face the dilemma of producing too much and watching prices plummet, or producing too little and starving. Government must support farmers to avoid this, and as they do, stop propping up the staples when there are more nutritious alternatives.

Agriculture could be the biggest positive contributor to tackling global warming, yet no government is considering the smallholder farmers’ contribution when tackling carbon emissions and because of that that they don’t participate. Africa could take the lead on this, but farmers aren’t brought to the table. If governments listened to what they are saying, then they might start formulating the right policies.

Finally it was agreed that sustainability has to stop being an afterthought and be put firmly at the core of business thinking. It needs to become the starting point, not the end point, and  if what we’re planning doesn’t help climate change then we shouldn’t even be thinking about doing it.