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Roots of the problem

November 10, 2009

Famine and Africa seem so synonymous that it’s almost not worth questioning the relationship. As East Africa reels from one of its worst droughts in living memory and enters into what looks likely to be an El Nino calamity, I wonder how things might be different. The biggest problem most African nations face, Peter Okoth tells me, is the lack of government subsidies for agriculture.

In the 1970s, the IMF and World Bank convinced African leaders to remove government subsidies for farmers on the logic that the free market would drive production. With UK farmers getting 55% subsidies, Australian 45%, Japan 40%, and so on, what this did was massively disadvantage African farmers. A Kenyan farmer pays four times as much as a US farmer for a litre of fertilizer, for example. (There is no fertilizer production on the continent, so it is all imported, adding to its cost.) Without subsidies, farmers can’t afford bad years, plant less and are crippled by debts from loans just to buy seeds. The cost of fertilizers have risen fourfold in the past year because petrol prices have soared.

Three years ago, the Malawi president, who being minister for agriculture, took a keen interest, failed to secure international loans and aid and so decided to introduce subsidies for farmers- the first sub-Saharan country to do so. Agricultural production rose 500% in those farmers included in the pilot project (nearly half of all farmers), they have closed the grain gap from 8 months (time during which the granary stores are empty) to two months, and some have 2 months’ surplus. In going against the World Bank, Malawi has created a production level that now enables it to sell maize to Zimbabwe and Kenya, unthinkable four years ago.

Kenya is now making noises in the same direction, but with an administration mired in corruption and with a President, who has so many other things higher up in his mind, the scheme is unlikely to be as successful. For a start, it’s not clear how subsidies will be administered and who will receive them. The government this week doubled the agricultural budget from 4% to 8%, though. It’s still shy of the 10% ‘Millennium Goals’ that governments agreed in 2006, but it’s something. And in a country where crops are almost exclusively rainfed, the government is making noises about improving irrigation.

It’s a long, slow, painful process, although much-needed. Deforestation and environmental degradation have made much of this vast land unsuitable for agriculture, rains have leeched away minerals and nutrients and erosion and salination plague formerly lush forests. But regeneration is possible, even in the most hostile environments. Okoth is a scientist working on the Below Ground Biodiversity Programme at the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute, part of the World Agroforestry Centre. His offices are set in lush gardens opposite the United Nations buildings, 20 minutes and a world away from the smoggy chaos of central Nairobi. Okoth’s topic of research is soil – what’s in it that plants like, how to make it more amenable to roots and resistant to disease. He identifies fungi and bacteria that help to fix the nitrogen, that plants need for growth, to their roots and encourages roots to frow more filaments faster. Using nitrogen-fixing microbes means farmers can get away with adding less fertilisers, which is cheaper and less polluting. It’s more efficient too – planting promiscuous soybean (a crop that enhances nitrogen-fixing) can concentrate up tp 120 kg of nitrogen per hectare of soil, which is far better than industrial fertilisers. He finds other organisms that cure or prevent diseases like blight in crops like maize. He can turn dust into a thriving nutritious ecosystem.

One example of this is in a former mine near Mombasa, where his team has turned a rocky impenetrable ground into a thriving ecosystem. First, they planted a few pine trees, he says, then they created a carpet of needles on which they introduced a few earthworms. The worms created soil and other plants could grow. I haven’t seen the plot, but it sounds interesting. Whether schemes like this can be repeated throughout the country is another question. Underpinning every effort like this is a team of NGOs, research scientists or small community. But they face enormous challenges from government incompetence, poverty, lack of education and traditional practices of charcoal burning and over grazing.

Sometimes, it seems to me like the only solution is for a small body of scientists, including a hydrogeologist, agricultural expert, biologist, meteorologist and ecologist to come together and without interference from social, economic or political factions, look at the entire African continent and draw up a crop, forestation, mangrove and grassland planting strategy according to water availability and climate. I wonder what Africa would look like. My guess is there would be no more starvation – the continent could feed us all and still have room for its wildlife. But perhaps I’m wrong.

One thing is certain, we’ve had enough of Nairobi. We’ll head east to the coast.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 17, 2009 4:21 am

    Sometimes, it seems to me like the only solution…..

    Or perhaps you could just solve the original problem highlighted in the second paragraph of this post — destroy the poverty-producing subsides of the developed world?

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