“What’s the point of increasing my yield if most of it will rot anyway?”
For farmers, that’s the voice of despair—and I often hear my fellow African farmers speak some version of this pessimistic line.
Africa trails the world in food production, and sub-Saharan Africa faces the problem most sharply. It lags well behind not only the wealthy nations, but also the developing countries of Asia.
We urgently need to boost our continent’s yield. We’re stuck in a cycle of low inputs and poor production. Confronting this conundrum is perhaps the most important of the world’s many food-security challenges.
There are no simple solutions. Fortunately, we’re not at a loss about where to start. We need better markets, improved infrastructure, and more access to advanced technology.
As a smallholder farmer in Nigeria’s western state of Oyo, I deal with these dilemmas every day. I grow crops on 50 acres of scattered farmland: mostly maize and cassava but also plantains and bananas. This is the environment of a rain forest, with wet and dry seasons.
We depend on the rain to feed our crops, and climate change has added a factor of unpredictability that hurts production, increases price shocks, and makes us all more vulnerable.
Unfortunately, we can’t change the weather. It’s beyond our control.
Yet much is within our control—and we can improve in so many ways.
We need government policies that promote public-private partnerships as well as investments that deliver resources and technology to ordinary farmers.
We need effective regulations that help poor farmers generate income. A good start would be the creation of a set of reliable standards on weights and measurements. Farmers in other countries take this for granted, but the lack of it in Nigeria and elsewhere complicates our ability to trade both within our own borders and abroad.
We need better roads, granaries, irrigation, markets, machinery, and finance. Right now, farmers in rural areas have trouble acquiring the inexpensive mechanical tools that are fundamental to agricultural work.
We need demand-driven production that guarantees ready markets and stable prices, not a command-and-control economy that often fails to know what farmers want to grow or what customers want to buy.
Finally, we need more access to crop technologies, such as improved seeds (hybrid seeds, GM seeds, et cetera) that will help us grow plants that withstand weeds, pests, and drought. If we enjoy this yield-boosting benefit—combined with all of the other improvements that African farmers require—then we may see our continent close the gap between its food production and food production in other places.
I’m hopeful that we will, at least in Nigeria. Last year, President Mohammed Buhari assumed office. I had several contacts with him many years ago, when I worked in Kaduna. I discovered him to be a listening leader who suspends judgment and demonstrates a strong drive to achieve the goals he sets. He’s also a former farmer, so he understands many of the problems that we face.
I also have a new appreciation for what may be possible.
In October, I visited the United States for the first time. Sponsored by the Global Famer Network, I traveled to Iowa to participate in the activities surrounding the World Food Prize. I was grateful for the hospitality and respect of Americans, and impressed by the success of their farms.
I knew from reputation that American agriculture was impressive, but nothing compared to seeing it with my own eyes. I was struck by how few Americans actually farm, even as farmers grow plenty of food for local and national markets and have enough left over to export so much of it.
This is the kind of success I want for Nigeria and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. I probably won’t see it in my lifetime, but seeing it in the United States makes me realize that this is not a fantastic and unattainable goal—it is the result of hard work, good policy, and durable infrastructure.
As successful as Americans are, I was also struck by how they want to keep doing better. I may be a smallholder in Africa, but I shared this basic motivation with Americans who cultivate thousands of acres: the desire always to do better, even in the face of hardship.