Last week, I joined ministers from Africa and Australia, researchers, policy makers, NGOs and government officials in Sydney to discuss food security. We heard some good news from many inspiring speakers who are working hard to address the challenges Africa faces.
But we were also told that one billion people go to bed every night hungry. Many of these are in Africa. Tragically, a further 200 million, mainly women and children, suffer from malnutrition, and 234 million sub-Saharan Africans lack adequate nutrition in their meals.
Scientists informed us that diets lacking in sufficient protein, vitamins and minerals stunt growth and impair learning ability in children.
Perversely perhaps, we also heard that urgent action was also required to deal with the health consequences of obesity in Africa. This is directly linked to a sharp rise in non-communicable diseases like diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular conditions.
Our solutions to these problems need to take account of a world population that will grow to 9 billion in 2050. Much of the increased demand for food will come from Africa. Total global food production needs to increase by 70 per cent by 2050.
However, agricultural productivity in Africa has declined both in real terms and in comparison with the rest of the world.
From 1963 to 2010, food production per capita fell 13 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, but rose 44 per cent in Asia and 48 per cent in South America. Africa cannot meet current demand let alone the needs of a population double its current size.
So what then is the good news?
Most of the experts present at the Conference told us that there were actually good reasons to be confident about the future. African countries do have the capacity to feed both their own people and sell surplus food to world markets.
Recent years have seen an extraordinary rebound in economic growth across Africa and this has the potential to translate into significantly increased food production across the continent.
The world, and most importantly, African governments and institutions, are taking action. A blueprint for improving African agriculture called the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) has a vision for developing agricultural productivity through research and innovation.
Outstanding Africa-based organisations like the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, and the Biosciences East and Central Africa hub at the International Livestock Research Institute are a crucial part of this vision.
The international community is focused on food security in Africa. Strong partnerships have been formed between governments, research institutions and universities to develop innovative strategies to improve food security.
Australia for its part has established an international Food Security Centre, with its African headquarters in Nairobi, designed to identify innovative strategies to improve food security.
At the Conference, Australia’s Foreign Minister Senator Bob Carr announced a new partnership with Canada for agricultural research, focussed on improving food security for expectant mothers and children under five.
What will all this effort lead to? The Conference highlighted many issues that need to be urgently addressed. These included land tenure, governance, access to livestock, seed and fertiliser, water and irrigation, weed and pest control, limited mechanisation and the role of the private sector.
There are numerous projects underway that will have a real impact, including the promotion of backyard pig production in Uganda, small-scale dairy options in Tanzania and the introduction of amaranth to East African farmers.
The Conference was sub-titled “bridging research and practice,” and for many experts this is where much of our focus has to be. There has been groundbreaking work undertaken internationally, including in African research institutions and their Australian counterparts.
Agricultural innovations and better practice now need to be put into the hands of African farmers. Scientific approaches and traditional knowledge need to be brought together.
So, there is much cause for optimism. But for me, the most inspiring moment was meeting 26-year-old Alex Berry at his farm in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney.
Faced with a downturn in milk prices from his dairy herd Alex switched to goats. He now produces 3,200 litres of high value goat milk per week and exports live goats around the world.
The flexibility, innovation and drive he showed Conference participants was a wonderful example on how agriculture can create wealth for farmers and their communities and food security for countries.
There are already many Alex Berrys across Africa doing great things. For example, Christine Ogola, a farmer in western Kenya, is introducing conservation agricultural practices, including intercropping maize with beans and retaining maize residues on her third of an acre plot. She has significantly increased her yields and her income.
Many more wait in the wings with ideas and skills that could make a real difference to food security. The message of this Conference was that we need to find more and better ways of helping them achieve this.
Geoff Tooth is Australia’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda and Australia’s ambassador to Burundi, Somalia and South Sudan