Africa’s smallholder farmers are critical to food security

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Africa could emerge as a global breadbasket provided an enabling agricultural environment is fostered, said Paul E. Schickler, president of DuPont Pioneer, one of the world's leading agricultural businesses. Africa has vast untapped potential to boost its agricultural output if governments and other stakeholders on the continent capitalise on their nations' natural resource endowments by training smallholder farmers on improved agricultural practices and technologies.

"Africa's abundant resources are a great foundation on which to build a sustainable agricultural sector and if the correct policies are implemented there is every reason to believe that the future of food security on the continent is very bright," said Schickler during a panel discussion that aired on CNBC Africa on 20 August. "With vast tracts of arable land, excellent weather, a youthful population and some of the fastest growing economies in the world, the stars are aligned for an African agricultural revolution."

Invest in Science, Technology and People

Given that as much as 40 percent of agricultural output goes to waste1 in Africa due to inadequate transport and storage, the need for investment in science, technology and education is imperative.

"We need to think of science and technology in a broad sense that encompasses everything from the use of enhanced seed varieties to the correct agronomic skills, access to finance and even something as simple as no-till farming techniques that help keep organic matter in the ground where it is needed," said Schickler. "The other crucial thing is to adapt global technology to local needs. Although science provides universal answers, solutions must be local so as to account for variations in climate, soils, cultural traditions and distribution infrastructure."

Investing in South African Farmers

Pioneer has committed R20 million (South African Rand) over five years to assist smallholder farmer development in South Africa. In November 2012, Pioneer established a collaborative agreement with the Limpopo Department of Agriculture (LDA) to work together with rural communities and other stakeholders to develop programmes addressing the challenges faced by small-scale and developing farmers in order to increase their overall farm productivity, profitability and food security. Since the beginning of the collaboration, Pioneer has invested R500 000. Limpopo is a key province for agricultural development in South Africa and its provincial government is supporting several initiatives to foster food security and self-sufficiency among emerging farmers.

Schickler said that while new technology is typically embraced in telecommunications, transport and healthcare, it is often regarded with skepticism when applied to agriculture. The result is that many African nations find themselves perpetuating less productive farming techniques and missing out on opportunities to improve household and national food security.

Lindie Stroebel, manager for Economic Intelligence at Agribusiness Chamber, told the CNBC Africa panel that the failure to embrace technological advances in agriculture is one reason why African crop yields are significantly lower than those of advanced economies that have adopted new farming technologies. Although Africa has 35 million hectares (or 86 million acres) of land available for maize production, average grain yields on the continent are less than 2 tons per hectare, about one-third of what is achieved in other developing regions and only one-fifth of yields in developed countries.

Africa Technology Hub

Pioneer has committed to help improve agricultural research and technology by investing R62 million by 2017 to establish a new regional technology hub in South Africa to serve the continent. The town of Delmas, Mpumalanga, South Africa, will serve as a technology centre for the hub, which is comprised of a network of research and testing locations around South Africa and Africa.

The hub will apply advanced seed breeding technologies, such as doubled haploids, ear photometry and the proprietary Pioneer Accelerated Yield Technology or AYT™ System, as well as genetic breeding technologies like marker-assisted selection, to shorten breeding cycles and improve accuracy toward breeding targets - including improved resistance to drought, insect and disease pressures, as well as improved yields with limited inputs, such as fertilizer.

"One of the problems in Africa is that food production is traditionally organised at the village level, resulting in small-scale planning that is based on immediate needs," Dr. Norman Maiwashe, a senior researcher at the Agricultural Research Council, told the panel. "We need to change our thinking to focus on long-term requirements. We have to bring science into the equation."

According to Schickler, collaboration between NGOs, the private sector, government institutions, and academia as well as small-scale and commercial farmers, is crucial to foster a more embracing culture towards new farming technologies. "Only by working together will Africa be able capitalize on its inherent natural resource endowments and ensure long-term national and household food security."

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