A boy smiles for the camera at Eva Orango school in Orango Island of Bijago Archipelago in Guinea-Bissau.(Image: Manoocher Deghati, Irin Photo) The record prices of staple grains in 2008 made investment in agriculture an attractive proposition for countries exporting as well as importing food. The African Union (AU), with its mix of producers and buyers, has been steadily gearing up for self-sufficiency. Shortly after Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika became AU chair in 2010, he announced a plan to make Africa food secure in the next five years.Martin Bwalya, head of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) said the AU’s seven-year roadmap to put the spotlight on farming so as to promote food security and economic growth, and reduce poverty, was set in motion five years ago.By the end of 2010, the agriculture development plans of 18 African countries had undergone a rigorous independent technical review and were being rolled out.Over 60% of Africa’s people live in rural areas and most depend on farming for food and income. Agriculture contributes between 20% and 60% to nations’ gross domestic product.In a document called The African Food Basket, Mutharika spelt out the details of his plan, which requires countries to allocate a substantial portion of their budget to agriculture, provide farming input subsidies, and make available affordable information and communications technology.This would be possible with the help of a new strategic partnership between countries, donors, aid agencies and the private sector.CAADP, initiated in 2003, covers all the main aspects of Mutharika’s plan, including African governments’ commitment to devote at least 10% of their budgets to agriculture.Under the programme, countries draw up comprehensive investment plans that include the four CAADP pillars: sustainable land and water management, improved market access and integration, increased food supplies and reduced hunger, and research, technology generation and dissemination.“We expect the countries to contribute at least 10% of the annual expenditure budget demonstrating local ownership and responsibility,” said Bwalya.He added while development aid financing remained important, it was also crucial that countries consider measures to attract direct private sector financing to agriculture.Uganda, one of the 18 states to undergo the review process, has met about 65% of its funding requirements from its own budget.The AU’s development agency, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), which runs CAADP, helps countries to mobilise funds.Is achieving food self-sufficiency in five years a realistic goal? It would be a tough call, said Ousmane Badiane, director for Africa at the US-based International Food Policy Research Institute.He noted that the AU had 53 members with varying degrees of agriculture investment, development and needs, and some countries did not have the structural capacity to reach the target of food self-sufficiency for many reasons including civil conflicts.Going regionalA more realistic option, Badiane said, would be for countries with the potential to improve food production to produce enough to feed their less productive neighbours. This called for expanding regional trade and investment in transportation, including ports, railways and highways linking countries.AU members have begun to take regional economic integration “seriously”, noted Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University in his recently released book, The New Harvest.He lists regional markets as one of the three opportunities that could fortify Africa’s food security against the rising threat of climate change.There are at least eight regional economic communities, “that are recognised by the AU as building blocks for pan-African economic integration”; these include the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, or Comesa, and the East African Community. However, “Regional cooperation in agriculture is in its infancy and major challenges lie ahead.”Regions could become food secure “by capitalising on the different growing seasons in different countries and making products available in all areas for longer periods of time”, he wrote.Both Mutharika and CAADP emphasise the development of regional markets. Mutharika listed 12 regional trade corridors identified by the various regional economic communities and suggested the AU draw up an institutional framework for each corridor.Science and technologyIn his book Juma lists advances in science and technology as another factor that could propel Africa towards food self-sufficiency, and called for more investment in the creation of regional hubs of research and innovation.Research is being carried out by groups created under Nepad, such as the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa Network, which has been leading research on food crops, including banana, teff, cassava, sorghum and sweet potatoes. More investment in networks, especially agriculture-related ones, could produce far-reaching results.Fertiliser and subsidiesUnderuse of fertilisers has often been cited as a major cause of low production in Africa. Only four countries – Egypt, Malawi, Mauritius and South Africa – have exceeded the 50 kilograms per hectare target set by the AU, Mutharika noted in his plan.Fertiliser use in Africa accounts for less than 10% of the world average of 100 kilograms per hectare. “Just five countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria) account for about two-thirds of the fertiliser applied in Africa,” Juma said.Mutharika, who promoted the provision of subsidised fertiliser in Malawi, makes a strong case for this approach. At present 19 African countries are implementing various programmes providing fertiliser.Juma sees leaders like Mutharika, who has prioritised food security as the third factor that could set Africa on the path to food security. The Malawian government devotes 16% of its national budget to agriculture.Yet Badiane of the International Food Policy Research Institute sounded a note of caution on subsidies and cited the case of Senegal. After independence the West African country put in place an agriculture subsidy programme in the 1960s that was even more comprehensive than Malawi’s. “It had a dramatic effect on agriculture in Senegal, but by 1979 one of its [agriculture] agencies had worked up a deficit amounting to 98% of the national budget.”Carefully managed subsidies, run for a short term, and aimed at strengthening existing markets and agricultural infrastructure, were a lot more effective, he said.The Rwandan government provided free fertiliser to farmers for four years after 1994. In 1998 it wanted to hand over importing and distribution to the private sector, which unfortunately lacked capacity, so the government continued to procure and import fertiliser but left distribution and selling to the private sector.Since then, aid from financial institutions has helped the private sector build capacity to import, and at least 20 bodies now import several hundred metric tons of fertiliser, Badiane said.Way forwardThe AU’s plans for agriculture also tackle other major issues affecting food security, such as irrigation (only 4% of Africa’s crop area is irrigated, compared to 39% in South Asia); improving soil fertility (more than 3% of agricultural gross domestic product in Africa is lost annually as a direct result of soil and nutrient loss); post-harvest storage loss (sub-Saharan Africa loses about 40% of its harvest per year, against 1% in Europe); setting up databanks to share early warning information and energy.There is a high level of engagement between countries on agriculture. “They meet regularly and we support them in building evidence-based information,” CAADP’s Bwalya noted.If they stayed the course in implementing CAADP, Badiane said in five years a large number of African countries, if not food secure, would be in a much better position to feed themselves.