Saba Saba, Kenya - Her bare feet coated with mud, Sabena
Gitau trudged down the rain-sodden hillside to her banana plantation, machete
She chose and cut several giant bunches of bananas, which
she strapped to a motorbike to be taken to nearby Saba Saba town, 77km north of
Nairobi, to be weighed, graded and sold.
A decade ago, Gitau made the same 10km trip a couple of
times a month, on foot with her bananas on her back, earning about 420
shillings ($5) for the dawn-to-dusk trek.
Today, after planting improved varieties and working as part
of a cooperative to boost her access to markets, the 59-year-old grandmother
earns 30 000 shillings ($360) a month from her bananas, selling them at 13
shillings a kilo rather than three.
"I am not educated. My father denied me that chance.
But I've made something of my life," said Gitau, who has bought seven
dairy cows with some of her profits.
She also recently planted 100 passion fruit vines as part of
an $11m project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Coca Cola,
to have 50 000 Kenyan and Ugandan smallholders produce fruit for Minute Maid
juice and double their incomes in the process.
As the world looks for ways to boost food production by at
least 70% by 2050 to feed an increasingly hungry planet, many people are
looking to sub-Saharan Africa - a region with 50 to 60% of the planet's unused
Crop yields in Africa average about one tonne per hectare.
That's well below many other parts of the world that produce up to seven tonnes
per hectare, suggesting there is potential for big boosts in production.
Experts say efforts like Gitau's banana project - which
combine improved seeds and crop varieties, better access to markets and
information for small-scale farmers, improved transportation and the like -
could be part of the blueprint for a 21st-century agrarian revolution in
'The last frontier'
"Africa is now the last frontier in terms of arable
land," said James Nyoro, the Rockefeller Foundation's managing director
for Africa. "With the population growing to 9 billion, the rest of the world
will have to depend upon Africa to feed it."
Some in the sector see huge promise.
"I have no doubt whatsoever that Africa can feed itself
and that Africa can be a major contributor to world food security,"
Namanga Ngongi, the former president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in
Africa (AGRA), told AlertNet.
"If you only increase productivity by 50% in Africa,
Africa will go from food deficit to food surplus. And that can be done with
access to simple inputs that are available today."
The barriers that have so far held back Africa' agricultural
success are formidable. They include lack of land tenure, particularly for
women, and shrinking plot sizes; limited use of irrigation and fertiliser;
unreliable water supplies; and inadequate access to credit.
Unpredictable weather, degraded soils, inefficient markets
and poor infrastructure compound the problem, while a history of political
instability, conflict and poor governance has made investors reluctant to pump
money into agriculture.
But experts say the formula for increasing yields for
African smallholders, who make up 80% of the continent's farmers, is relatively
simple. Just organise them into larger groups, provide them with better
materials and training and connect them to markets.
"In a sense, it's a no-brainer," said Gordon
Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College, London.
"Give them fertiliser. Give them seed. Give them water.
And they can do it."
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) projects that
sub-Saharan Africa's share of the total world production of cereals will be
8.6% in 2050, up from 4.5% in 2005-07.
"That said, with improved management and inputs, in
many places African crop yields have the potential to double or even
triple," said Christopher Matthews, the FAO's media relations officer in
Gitau formed an association with 100 other farmers, so that
they could aggregate their produce and attract big buyers from Nairobi instead
of being exploited by local middlemen.
They started selling bananas by the kilo, instead of using
the "eyeball" method, where buyers size up the fruit - and the degree
of desperation on the farmer's face - and haggle.
Secondly Africa Harvest, a non-profit organisation
headquartered in Nairobi, taught Gitau's group how to grow higher yielding,
disease-resistant tissue culture bananas.
The big question is how to scale up these scattered success
stories and turn around Africa's dismal record as the only continent where per
capita food production has declined over the past 20 years.
Seeds of change
One of the biggest challenges lies right at the start of the
chain: seed production.
"If you're able to have good seed and appropriate
fertiliser, and on time, I think really the production side of agriculture
would probably be resolved," said AGRA's former president, Ngongi.
AGRA is providing technical support to 70 seed companies
across Africa to produce more seed. In 2011, they produced 40 000 tonnes of
seed, which AGRA hopes will rise to 250 000 tonnes by 2018 and reach 5 to 10
In drought-prone parts of Kenya, as few as 10% of farmers
"They just save seed and recycle," said James
Karanja, director of Freshco, a private seed company set up after
liberalisation of the market in the late 1990s.
"You have to train them and show them: 'Just sacrifice
those few coins, that 200 shillings ($2) you have. Buy this seed. It's going to
make a difference in your life'."
Yet farmers living on the edge of hunger are understandably
wary about spending money on the unknown.
"It's not as simple as saying: 'Hey, the seed is out
there. Why the hell aren't you using it'?" said Kostas Stamoulis, director
of the FAO's Agricultural Development Economics Division.
"If I use it and it fails, then my family will die from
hunger. If you have a family that lives from hand to mouth, you are not going
to take that risk."
Rajiv Shah, head of the US Agency for International
Development (USAID), believes greater investment in agricultural research is
the number one priority for Africa to achieve a green revolution.
"Agricultural research in sub-Saharan Africa pays off a
return on investment of $25 for every dollar invested," he told AlertNet,
highlighting a USAID-funded project that has tripled maize yields in Kenya with
better seeds and improved techniques.
Farmers also need information about improved seeds and
training in better crop management to maximise their yields.
"I believe farmers could double their yields just from
knowledge," said Rachel Zedeck, founder of BackPack Farm, a for-profit
enterprise that sells organic farming products in a canvas rucksack and teaches
farmers how to use them.
"It's really all about education so farmers know what
they should be buying," Zedeck said. "Then it's linking to finance so
that they can afford to buy better quality products."
Crucially, after decades of neglect, African governments
appear to be waking up to the importance of investing in agriculture - if not
for food security, then for political stability.
"I think governments are more conscious today for
almost the selfish reason of staying in power," said Ngongi, referring to
riots over high food prices that affected several countries in 2008.
"A lot of them were African countries that came close
to the brink of civil unrest."
Whatever their motivation, key players are talking up
Africa's Green Revolution ahead of global meetings this year, from the G8 and
G20 to Rio+20, where food security initiatives will take centre stage.
"Every other part of the world has done it, so we are
very confident we can see that kind of productivity growth leading to food and
hunger reductions here in Africa as well," USAID's Shah said.