Published online 17 July 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.695

News: Q&A

Weighing up the G8's promises to poor countries

Nature News talks to Namanga Ngongi about the billions of dollars pledged for food security.

Namanga NgongiNamanga Ngongi.AGRA

On 10 July, G8 leaders promised to dedicate US$20 billion over three years to food security around the world. The money will be spread between emergency food aid and investment in agriculture. The latter push mirrors, and was influenced by, the approach of the three-year-old Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, the Rockefeller Foundation in New York and the UK Department for International Development. Namanga Ngongi, the first president of AGRA, based in Nairobi, talks to Nature News about how research fits into this new model of agricultural development.

How did AGRA influence the G8 declaration?

I would not say that AGRA had an extraordinary influence on it, but AGRA had been participating in the discussions with our partners. AGRA is chaired by Kofi Annan, the former secretary-general of the United Nations, and he is in contact with some of the heads of states of the G8 countries. AGRA's strategy in Africa is more or less reflected in the G8 statement.

How much of the $20 billion is new? How much will go to research?

I wish I knew how much of it is new money and how much is old money that is being kept alive. Even if it is a re-commitment of old money, it is very much welcome. I do not have the details of how it will be allocated yet. But the direct investment in agriculture was very, very, very low before. So there will be a significant boost in the resources to support research. We have an extraordinary opportunity this year and in the next few years to make a real change in Africa's fortunes.

What kind of research is most urgently needed?

Prioritization is difficult; Africa is a continent, not a country. But I would say that seeds would be a high priority: seeds that are high-yielding, resistant to a variety of insects and diseases and able to withstand the vagaries of climate change, which is really upon us now. We also need new farming systems that respond to the exigencies of climate change. We must move from heavy tillage of land to conservation agriculture; move from using just inorganic fertilizer — although this is also badly needed — to biological nitrogen fixation by legumes and organic matter. We need to reconsider how to use Africa's intercropping system with these new high-yielding varieties, which need different associations of crops. There is a need for research also in sociology to find ways of packaging innovations so they can be better accepted by the farming populations.

Is Africa ready to take on all these research challenges?

A lot has to be done in terms of capacity building to be able to absorb a lot of money in research. The African research system has been neglected for some time. There has been an exit of a lot of manpower. A lot of the research stations are badly run down.

ADVERTISEMENT

We need especially a trained cadre of women scientists and extension agents [scientists that communicate new research findings to farmers]. Food crops are mostly produced by women and male extension agents cannot meet with women to transfer knowledge to them as easily. In many countries there are cultural barriers that prevent easy association between men and women. Women constitute 70% of the small holder farmers in Africa; men are more likely to be involved in cash crops. So male extension agents tend to focus also on these cash crops.

What is the place of biotechnologies in Africa?

In today's African agriculture, biotechnologies are not crucial. The current gap between the one tonne per hectare and the five tonnes that is possible can be bridged with conventional agriculture. However with climate change, it may be that in the future, it will be needed. We cannot close the door. Scientists and policy-makers can reach their own conclusions about what is appropriate for their own countries.

Some people say that there already enough food to go around and that there is a need for better distribution rather than improving yields. Do you think that is true?

That is too much of a generalized statement, but there is a large amount of truth in it. There may be enough food globally per capita. But we do not have a system of world governance in which the surplus food from Thailand or Bangladesh will be available to Somalia. African countries that do not have the financial resources to import food should invest in production.

Will increasing production put greater stress on the environment?

No. If you doubled yields in Africa from one tonne to two tonnes per hectare, you would only need half the land and you would be saving a lot of forest, especially if better systems mean you do not move your crops on to new land every two or three years. Better systems mean more sustainable agriculture. 

Commenting is now closed.