By Alesha Black
A lot can change in a decade. It was just over 10 years ago that the world was reeling from high fuel and fertilizer prices, food price spikes and related civil unrest, restrictions on global food trade and in many places, rising food insecurity. That same set of events also woke the world up to a need for greater investment in and support for the world’s smallholder farmers after decades of a steady reduction in attention and aid.
For many years, there was a flurry of new activity and new organizations. The G8 committed to billions of dollars of new investment in L’Aquila, Italy. In the US the Feed the Future initiative commenced in 2009, intensifying the efforts of the US government, which had been leading efforts on global food security for decades prior. African governments stepped up their investments in agriculture and strengthened or created plans under the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). And a few years later, private sector coalitions like Grow Africa formed and the World Bank opened a private sector investment window focused squarely on global agriculture and food security. Philanthropists like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched multi-billion dollar investments in smallholder agriculture and AGRA, an African agricultural leader, began scaling up and responding wither greater coordination and scale. The Chicago Council also produced its foundation publication arguing for more investment and U.S. leadership for smallholder agriculture.
Some of the seeds planted nearly a decade ago have born fruit; many have not. Now, as the State of Food Insecurity in the World report has just come out, we are reminded that while progress is visible in some places, conflict and climate change are plunging others into a state of food insecurity, as the number of food insecure people rises for a second year in a row to 821 million. We must keep looking for new solutions, including with greater and more creative engagement by the private sector, as the challenge is too large for public sector action alone. But we must also remember that many of the fundamentals of agricultural development are solid and in fact, the largest proportion of the private sector is ready to respond: smallholder farmers themselves. Given training, access the markets and the option to negotiate rather than simply accept a farmgate price, communities can be transformed. That’s the story of hundreds of years of progress and agricultural development.
The Impabaruta Cooperative in Kamonyi District, Rwanda was founded ten years ago, at this exact moment of reenergized support. A week ago, upon visiting Kigali for the Africa Green Revolution Forum, I, along with Council Distinguished Fellow Catherine Bertini and Council staff members Michael Tiboris and Sharlene Prosser had the fortune of sitting with a group of lead farmers in their office, across the hall from a storage room stuffed to the brim with bags of maize. On the wall next to me, a cartoon poster (similar to what you see in this document) demonstrated best practices for ensuring good post-harvest handling in local languages, with the familiar ‘USAID-From the American People’ logo printed in the top left corner. Hosting our visit, UN World Food Program staff sat alongside a cooperative support officer from the Ministry of Agriculture and leadership from the cooperative, including the official IT guy for the group, who manned a computer that could keep the records of crop deposits in storage, loans borrowed, and invoices to be paid for the 900+ members.
When asked what had changed for them in the past ten years, farmers reported changing their production techniques and garnering better yields, more income to pay for school fees, and the installation of electricity in the cooperative and in many of their homes. But it is not just the benefits they’re reaping from farming. One woman shared that prior to joining the group, she never would have stood and addressed a group as she now does quite comfortably. In fact, the Impabaruta cooperative is a model in collective action leading to both better livelihoods but also creating more empowered people. This group has won awards for best overall cooperative in the country and the most inclusive of women youth. Smiling wide, another woman noted the biggest impact for her was, in fact, meeting her husband, who was another member of the cooperative.
This group is an example of the slow but steady progress that is not only possible but expected when smallholder farmers get the information, capital, and support they need. This group now participates in the Farm to Market Alliance, a collaboration between public actors and private companies, which includes AGRA, Bayer, Grow Africa, the International Finance Corporation, Rabobank, Yara, Syngenta (a generous Council sponsor), and the World Food Program. Thanks to this program’s intense focus on utilizing market forces to sustain good access to markets, these farmers happily report that, due to their superior quality and reliability, buyers come to them to procure their grain, in contrast to finding no interested buyer, or perhaps only one. Farmers are now in the negotiating seat---not left to take whatever price is offered them. And, even more impressive, the group has graduated from producing only grain, to cultivating hybrid maize seed, which fetches them two to three times the price of grain.
One can only imagine what will happen in another decade with sustained support and innovative partnerships that leverage the best of what civil society, private sector, and public sector have to offer. We need more efforts like the Farm to Market Alliance. Coalitions of like-minded companies can surmount the challenges of underdeveloped markets, infrastructure, and finance if they work in partnership with civil society organizations who have learned how to creatively build capacity and work in deep partnership with local government.
So, let’s recognize that some things are working, as seen in the Impabaruta Cooperative. But we also need to look to the youth in low-income and food insecure regions. If we equip them with digital technology and a little finance, amazing things will happen. Just take a look at the agripreneurs that pitched last week at the AGRA Forum and imagine where we’ll be in another decade as the SDGs are just around the corner.