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The African continent has enormous potential for agricultural production. Yet more than 160 million Africans are food insecure and malnourished. This is about one in four Africans, making Africa the most food-insecure region in the world. Every day over 100 million children in Africa go to bed hungry with devastating long-term consequences on their physical and mental development, hobbling their productivity as adults. Indeed, this has led to 58 million stunted African children—short in height for their age—representing an increase of 23% since 1990, despite worldwide declines of 37% over the same period. More than 32 million African children under five are underweight, of which nearly 10 million are severely underweight, and 14.3 million are wasted, with low weight for their height. Simply put, more than a third of African children under five are either moderately or severely underweight. Africa’s recent economic gains are at risk if this is allowed to continue.

Related to health and nutrition concerns, low agricultural productivity and value addition are very much at the heart of employment and income challenges on the continent. The agricultural sector accounts for between 50 and 70% of employment in African countries, but produces only 25%, of Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Consequently, many people work in agriculture for their livelihoods and yet produce and earn very little for it. Furthermore, less than 30% of harvests are processed into value added products compared to 98% in developed countries. Only $40 of value is added to one ton of processed products in Africa compared to $180 in rich countries. These are missed opportunities to create wealth and employment, especially for women who predominate in the population of African farmers today (70–80% of African farmers are women). This places women and their families in precarious situations, exacerbating the health and nutrition challenges already described. To escape this negative feedback loop, increasing agricultural productivity and value addition is key. The interventions described here address productivity issues while other measures being rolled out within the Bank’s Feed Africa strategy work on improving value addition.

Why is productivity so low in Africa? For a variety of reasons including poor soils and limited access by smallholder farmers to improved crop varieties and livestock breeds, fertilizer, soil correctives, and appropriate crop production packages. African staple crop yields have barely grown in the last 25 years, and remain the lowest of any region in the world. The productivity of five staple crops—rice, wheat, maize, potato, and cassava—is just over half of the international average. Annual growth of cereal yields was only 1.3% from 1990 to 2014, compared with 4.1% in Brazil during the same period. Strikingly, between 2001 and 2008, agricultural GDP in Africa grew at just 3.4% while overall GDP grew nearly twice as fast, at 6% annually.

In sum, the underperformance of the African agriculture sector leads to low incomes and expensive and often poor quality food, which has a direct bearing on hunger, malnutrition, poverty, and human capital and which hinders economic opportunities in the farm and non-farm sectors alike

Asia’s experience illustrates how rapidly things can turn around with the right actions at a critical time. In the mid-1960s in Asia, rising populations, an underperforming agricultural sector, and consecutive droughts led to significant food shortages, widespread hunger, and malnutrition. However, through spectacular scientific advances in wheat and rice breeding and agronomy, the food crisis was rolled back and India became food secure within four years, by 1970; Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines and Bangladesh followed soon after. The Asian agricultural phenomenon is estimated to have saved a billion lives and is now known as the ‘Green Revolution’.

The Asian experience was inspired by earlier successes in Latin America. The 20th century scientific advances in agriculture that were so successfully applied in Asia had been developed by the Mexican Agricultural Cooperation Program for wheat, established by the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico City in the 1950s, and by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for rice, created by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations in Los Banos, Philippines, in the 1960s. This was south-south learning at its best.

And indeed this south-south learning was deliberately supported by global development partners at the time. The World Bank, from the late sixties to the early eighties, provided institutional innovations to deploy and adapt the wheat and rice agricultural technologies to millions of hectares of farmlands in Asia. The World Bank also facilitated the establishment of public institutions at global, regional and country levels combined with policy advice and support to Asian countries, to implement a far-sighted strategy of reaching resource-limited farmers with the best of modern agricultural technology. One of these is the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a global network of agricultural R&D institutions, established in 1972. The CGIAR centers were set up to be international centers of excellence in agricultural innovation, where cutting edge crop and livestock technologies were developed by the world’s best scientists and tested and adapted to individual country conditions, in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research and Extensions Systems (NARES). NARES are made up of national agricultural research institutes, universities, public and private extension (training) agencies, farmer organizations, etc., representing the national voices and approaches to agricultural technology development and deployment. It is safe to say that the Asian Green Revolution would not have happened without heavy investments by the World Bank, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and Asian governments in agricultural research and development, credit, input distribution, extension, and rural infrastructure. On average, Asian governments doubled their own spending on agriculture between 1972 and 1985.

The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations expanded International Agricultural Research Centers (IARCs) to Africa in the late 1960s—with the first center being the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), established in Ibadan, Nigeria in 1967 to tackle technological barriers to raising food production. In the 1980s, two other centers were established in Kenya: the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the International Center Agroforestry Research (ICRAF, presently referred to as “World Agroforestry Center”); as well as a fourth center, the Africa Rice Center in Cote d’Ivoire. Of the 15 centers, four are based on the African continent. Centers in Asia and Latin America also opened research stations in Africa in the 1980s, including the Wheat and Maize Research Center in Mexico (CIMMYT) and the Tropical Crops Center (CIAT), demonstrating the increasing interest of international donors to bring the research and the technology for a green revolution to Africa.

But Africa missed the first green revolution for several reasons. Technologies have not moved to scale before in Africa due to: i) weak agricultural extension systems, ii) poor linkages between research and extension, iii) long technology verification and release systems, iv) a focus on national boundaries instead of across agro-ecological zones, v) insufficient attention to private sector value chains, vi) poor market linkages, vii) weak policy and regulatory environments, and viii) the absence  of a regionally coordinated effort to deliver technologies across similar Agro-ecological zones (technologies without borders).

Africa’s internal borders pose a serious challenge to the spread of technology on the continent. New agricultural technologies spread slowly across Africa’s agro-ecological zones because they are partitioned into multiple countries with differing governments, languages, phytosanitary controls and seed-certification processes. At the same time, pests and diseases do not respect arbitrarily drawn political borders and easily spread across them. This creates a deadly mismatch between prevailing dangers and the ability to roll out technologies to stop them in their tracks. The Fall Armyworm is a good example of such a pest that travels quickly and wreaks destruction on entire crops in its path. The Armyworm was spotted for the first time in northern Nigeria in 2016 and has already managed to spread to at least 40 African countries (see Appendix 3 for a description of the Fall Army Worm Problem and mitigation plan led by the Bank). Tragically this is a crisis with known scientific solutions in the US and Brazil to stop the pests in their path, but without mechanisms to rapidly deliver them to African fields. And this is but one example.

Low public sector investment in agriculture, poor seed systems, weak public extension, and lack of a harmonized regional legal framework for registration of crop varieties, and animal breeders’ rights (intellectual property), have meant that even existing improved varieties and breeds do not get into the hands of most farmers within a country or across a region. The share of acreage planted using improved crop varieties is only 30% in Africa compared with more than 50% in Latin America and more than 80% in Asia. Improved livestock breeds are even less prevalent.

Investment by governments in the agriculture sector has also been a key driver of Green Revolutions in other regions. Mindful of this, African governments came together in 2003 to agree on the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), which, among other things, called for African countries to spend 10% of their budgets on agriculture. Yet, to date, only a handful of countries have managed to meet this target, hindering the resources available to support the transfer of new agricultural technologies into and within Africa.

Feed Africa is the Bank’s bold initiative to end hunger, malnutrition, extreme poverty, and food imports—currently estimated at US$35 billion and projected to rise to US$110 billion by 2025, if nothing is done. This is a massive challenge as well as a massive opportunity. Feed Africa takes a commodity value chain approach to developing agriculture in Africa. A guiding principle of the Feed Africa Initiative is treating agriculture as a business, rather than as a way of life, and ensuring the inclusivity of women and young people. The goal is to produce thriving small-, medium-, and large-scale agribusinesses in every segment of commodity value chains on the continent. Therefore, for Feed Africa to succeed, it must do two things. First, it must significantly raise agricultural productivity. Second, it must move African production much higher on the value chain, with agribusinesses producing and selling processed goods, not simply basic commodities, while providing markets for African farmers. The TAAT initiative aims to achieve the first goal, while a number of other initiatives, notably the development of agropoles and well-functioning markets, focus on the second. TAAT is therefore the bedrock of Feed Africa.