Africa’s ministers of agriculture are meeting in Addis Ababa this week to debate policies that will shape an agricultural market projected to be worth $1 trillion (Sh87 trillion) by 2030, three times its size in 2010.
We may argue that the market is beset by volatility and incoherence but one thing is certain: no one should underestimate Africa’s entrepreneurial drive or the potential of millions of its smallholder farmers to feed the continent and the world.
Africa’s smallholder farmers can be agriculture’s game changers of the 21st Century.
The numbers speak for themselves. Up to 80 per cent of the food we eat in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers — people who tend crops and raise livestock on less than a hectare of land — and most of them are women.
The reality is that the real output from this class of farmers remains far below their potential.
The fact is that when Africa’s farmers get hold of what their counterparts elsewhere in the world take for granted, they will rapidly catch up.
That means empowering them with access to finance, modern agricultural technologies, reliable markets and secure rights to their land, effective extension services and supportive policies.
Initiatives that enable African farmers to adapt to growing conditions rapidly being altered by climate change are also critical.
Policymakers can further fuel Africa’s agricultural development by confronting the gender gap in agriculture and overcoming obstacles that limit the productivity of women farmers relative to men.
By putting these basic principles into practice, and forging strategic, well-considered partnerships, Africa’s smallholder farms can succeed as businesses connected to thriving local, regional and global markets.
The potential here is that the progress of Africa’s small scale farmers will infuse new energy into the global economy and make the continent’s rural economies thrive.
When Africa’s smallholder farmers prosper, the world will prosper. The alternative is grim. The reality is that half of population in Africa lives in extreme poverty with more than 60 per cent in remote rural areas where agriculture is the main economic activity.
This is unlikely to change any time soon, making the case for policies that will improve their lot.
Furthermore, between 2012 and 2050, population in most of sub-Saharan Africa will more than double, putting it at 11.3 times its 1950 level.
Agriculture is by far the surest means by which the world can give all Africans the opportunity to have healthy diets, earn income and live dignified lives in 2015 right up till 2050.
The best option lies with accelerating a sustainable green revolution on Africa’s smallholder farms. There is a need to help Africa’s smallholders harness science on their farms to sustainably increase productivity.
This can and should be done in concert with agricultural enterprises of all sizes, including large agribusiness by putting the smallholder first.
When the ministers of agriculture meet, they will have an opportunity to demonstrate commitment to Africa’s smallholders, and to accelerate progress under, the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP).
Launched 10 years ago by the African Union, and approved by African governments, CAADP calls on the governments to commit at least 10 per cent of their annual national budgets to agriculture, and to achieve six per cent annual agricultural growth by 2015.
With 2015 less than one year away, it is time to renew those commitments to transform African agriculture into a sustainable source of wealth, nutrition and health for the rural poor.
Over the past decade, CAADP has helped raise global awareness that agriculture is central to Africa’s development.
During this time, international partners have reversed the precipitous decline in official development assistance for agriculture, committing tens of billions of dollars to growing African agriculture.
A few countries, such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Rwanda, have made tremendous progress in expanding and modernising their agriculture, providing lessons and inspiration for others.
It is no coincidence that these countries have also seen huge decrease in their poverty rates: Ethiopia by 49 per cent; Ghana by 44 per cent; and Burkina Faso by 37 per cent.
As African Union celebrates 2014 as the Year of Agriculture and Food Security, it must be suggested to them that the best way to do so is to make good on its commitments and to achieve the set goals.
There are many allies in this quest. Working with the AU and other partners, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is engaged in a range of public private partnerships that offer practical solutions to the challenge of creating a sustainable path to a food-secure future in Africa.
We have arrived at a critical juncture where all involved need to step up their commitments, forge new alliances, and rally behind Africa’s smallholder farmers.
By empowering them, we can change the rules of the game and initiate a decade of unprecedented agricultural transformation.
Ms Karuku is President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA)