Alvaro Lario: Irrigation holds the master key to Africa’s food security

Tuesday May 23 2023
alvaro lario

The International Fund for Agricultural Development President Alvaro Lario. PHOTO | NOAM GALAI | GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP


The International Fund for Agricultural Development (Ifad) President Alvaro Lario explains to Pauline Kairu why sub-Sahara Africa and the Horn need a paradigm shift deal with persistent food insecurity.


What is happening in sub-Saharan Africa on food systems and production?

Rural economies, and especially agriculture, have suffered an underinvestment problem for many decades.

And this has exacerbated conflict, hunger, migration and, obviously, instability. Also, think about what has been going on in terms of the climate, like the worst drought in 40 years in the Horn of Africa, cyclones in southern Africa, invasion of locusts in Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia... clearly, the frequency and the magnitude of these events has increased.

We are seeing further food insecurity and malnutrition, fuelled by lack of investments, productivity, and these extreme weather events.


Even worse, many of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa are either in moderate or in high risk of debt distress, which means their fiscal capacity and ability to take more debt is limited. This puts them in a more challenging situation.

If you add to all of these disruptions in the global food value chains and fertiliser supply, this has increased the vulnerability for the population with whom we work — the smallholders, who many times lack the ability to purchase these fertilisers to start with.

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Generally, the situation is not positive. In the past three years, some 150 million more people fell into food insecurity.

What would alleviate these problems?

We need to invest in irrigation systems, build the infrastructure in the rural areas that can connect many of these smallholders to markets. We need to invest in technology, drought-resistant seeds. We need to have early warning systems.

This is the only type of investment that will prevent an escalation of the humanitarian crisis. It is not like we do not know what needs to happen, we do. The solutions do exist, but these require political commitment and investment to make them happen.

It’s a matter of making sure that many of these investments reach the populations that are in need — the populations that have contributed the least in the problem of climate change.

I was recently in Kenya’s Upper Tana region and Embu County, where IFAD has been investing in small dams.

While the bigger dams are being built by bigger multilateral development banks, farmers and rural populations need solutions right away. One of the projects I visited is a diversion of some of the Upper Tana River catchments. This has enabled farmers to start planting even during the dry season, to start earning further income and to be able to have a decent living.

So, while we find bigger financing solutions, we need to attend to the populations that do not have that access to water, finance, and inputs.

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And we cannot wait. These smaller infrastructure projects need to happen in order to serve the people.

Africa committed to spending at least 10 percent of national budgets on agriculture but 20 years later this has not happened in most countries. Would things have been different if they honoured this pledge?

Many things have happened since the Maputo Declaration in 2003. Only Rwanda is on track to meet the Malabo commitments, which were reaffirmed in 2014 under the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme.

Governments need to start focusing more and more on the rural population, as most of the actual jobs are in agriculture in most of Africa. Support them not only in subsistence farming, but also in small-scale production; not only in producing food, but in distributing, storing, marketing, exporting food.