The savannahs of Africa cover a mind-boggling 600 million hectares, 400 million hectares of which are cultivable, African Development Bank (AfDB) president Akinwumi Adesina has said.
However, just 10% of this area is cultivated -- a mere 40 million hectares, Adesina said Wednesday while speaking at a session titled “Transformation of the African Savannah Initiative" at the 2017 World Food Prize-Borlaug Dialogue symposium in Des Moines, Iowa. Adesina is the 2017 recipient of the World Food Prize.
According to Adesina, the potential of African savannahs is so huge that World Bank calls the Guinea savanna zone “one of the major underutilized resources in Africa.”
He noted that the savannahs in Africa are better than those in Brazil -- a country noted for turning its savannahs into agricultural wealth -- because Africa’s soils are not acidic and, therefore, don't need liming, which had to be done at massive scales in Brazil.
The initiative will start by bringing approximately 2 million hectares of savannah in eight African countries -- Ghana, Guinea, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and Mozambique -- under the cultivation of maize, soybean and livestock production in optimum conditions. The goal is to double production in those eight countries.
“Africa must learn from the experiences that have worked elsewhere while tailoring the interventions to the specific realities of Africa. We must ensure that small, medium-scale and large-scale commercial farmers coexist in a way that allows opportunities for all,” Adesina said.
The 2017 World Food Prize laureate explained that partnerships in research and development will be crucial, and that is why AfDB engaged to work with the strongest organizations with proven track records in tropical agriculture from South America. Some are the Brazilian Research Corp. (EMBRAPA), the Agricultural Corporation of Brazil (CAMPO) and others with long experience in conservation agriculture, including the Argentine Association of Zero-tillage (AAPRESID) and the Argentine Agricultural Research Institute, he said.
“They will work very closely with universities and the national agricultural research systems across the savannahs of Africa,” Adesina noted.
AfDB vice president of agriculture, human and social development Jennifer Blanke also explained that the bank is determined to increase productivity so Africa becomes a net producer and exporter of agricultural produce.
“The idea is to have more job creation and create the next generation of 'agri-preneurs.' We can’t do everything, so we’ve broken it down to certain number of value chains that we are going to tackle in Africa," Blanke said. “If you look at the savannah, it has massive potential. In fact, it spans about 400 million hectares, and only about 10% of it is utilized. It covers about 25 countries, and about 240 million people are depending on agriculture in these areas -- and about half of them are living in poverty.”
She added that the savanna initiative, which begins in November, will use the best technology in order to transform the savanna based on the experience of Brazil. Blanke explained that Brazil has a history of building its own savannahs -- their cerrados -- with these kinds of technologies.
“It was about driving farms that were producing a new variety of soya beans. It was very difficult, and we know that, but amazing things happened,” she said.
In his address, Dr. Alysson Paulinelli, former minister of agriculture of Brazil, chairman of CAMPO and 1996 World Food Prize laureate, noted that Brazil was suffering a lot in the 1970s, like Africa is today.
“We imported two-thirds of what we consumed," Paulinelli said. "Brazilian families had to use about 42% of net income to feed themselves. We had to decide how to save Brazil. It was doomed to bankruptcy. So, we made a decision to drive a change in agriculture. The first thing we did was to realize that Brazilian agriculture was not different from colder climates. Brazil, the way things were, could not be self-sufficient, so we had to change our production system.
“The government needed to change first, but the government was not ready. So, we put together a group of experts, and they convinced the government," Paulinelli said. "After the government, the farmers had to change, and we believed it would benefit them.”
Today, Brazil exports $100 billion in food items, Paulinelli added. The feat was not that difficult, he said, noting that those who want innovation must believe in the benefit of science.
“Now, we are reaching Africa, and on the request of the AfDB, we will start work in Ghana,” he said. “The support from Japan was crucial to our success. Those who were doing the work in the fields received all the information from the institutions.”
Meanwhile, Ghana's deputy minister of agriculture Sagre Bambangi underscored the biological, socioeconomic and political dimensions to consider. According to Bambangi, the government of Ghana initiated a campaign that ensures availability of food in the country, thereby creating job opportunities.
“We, in Ghana, are delighted to have been chosen to host the (Transformation of the African Savannah Initiative) pilot program,” he said.