Africa is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and vast tracts of land for agriculture development. These resources represent opportunities for governments to develop their infrastructure and expand support for their citizens. However, having resources is one thing, knowing how to use them efficiently and effectively is the key to dynamic growth.
One of the most basic and important aspects of life is ensuring that people and communities have sufficient food at an appropriate price. Not only is this basic to ensuring healthy communities, it also is a basic security issue for countries. Many of us remember the food riots a few years back when people in communities around the world rioted over the supply of and high cost of basic food items. These riots were a wake-up call for countries with growing populations and for all organizations involved in the food sector that we no longer can take food supply and production for granted.
There are many components, innovations, and scientific developments designed to improve food security for our growing populations. Even in the face of these innovations it is imperative that we also pay attention to the aging population of commercial farmers and to the effects of climate change on food production.
In Africa, the United States and other parts of the world, the average age of farmers is over 55 years. The life expectancy in many of the African countries is 65 years. As these farmers age, to whom will they pass along their wealth of knowledge about farming and who will then begin to take over food production? Historically, it has been a youthful relative who learns farming from the elder farmer but this no longer is the case.
Africa has one of the fastest growing youth populations in the world. The African Union Commission projects that by 2020 three out of four people in Africa will be, on average, 20 years old. Unfortunately, the youth do not seem to see a future in farming. Instead, they see their fortune reflected in the bright lights of the cities. We need to change that.
Many organizations working with rural communities on food security focus on subsistence farming. We must move beyond that type of thinking and help farmers to look at their farms as commercial ‘enterprises’ no matter what size they are. Once farmers are able to view their farms as businesses the subsistence part will be taken care of and they can focus on profitability. This not only will help increase food supply and create income for the family but, more important, it will demonstrate to young people that in addition to producing food, farming can be a profit earning business and a path to achieving their dreams.
We also must pay attention to changes in the climate. All of us who work the land in one way or another agree that weather patterns are becoming more extreme with harsher droughts, worse floods and greater temperature variations. Over their many years of working the land farmers learn which areas in a country are good for growing which crops. However, with changing weather patterns land that may not have been ideal for growing certain crops in the past now may be the best place to grow those crops. And – at the same time – local and state governments may be looking at that land as a potential site for development.
It therefore becomes increasingly important that decisions about changes in food production models and locations as a result of climate change be shared not just with farmers but also with planners and decision makers. That is the only way to ensure that efficient, reliable food production is preserved.
As our respective populations increase and we become more intertwined as communities and countries we will need to cooperate more at all levels. If we can plan together then all the newly available science, innovation, and technology will become tools we can use to help us become more efficient in improving our food supply.
Dan Tyler is regional coordinator for CWS Africa.