Next Up - Tractors for Africa
By Marshall Matz
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The former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, and current Chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) recently said: “I firmly believe that the transformation of African agriculture has moved beyond its tipping point, and that we now---for the first time---have the momentum need to achieve our vision of a uniquely African Green Revolution. The evidence is all around us.”
Former Sec. General Kofi Annan and Tom Vilsack, Secretary of USDA
There is no question that the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, is right on the mark. Some of the evidence includes:
· The Program for Africa's Seed Systems, under the leadership of Dr. Joe DeVries, has now released 440 new varieties of seed specifically designed for Africa. The seeds cover all major food crops including maize, rice, beans, cassava, sweet potato, cowpea, sorghum and millet.
· There are now over 21,000 agrodealers operating in 12 breadbasket countries. These are privately owned businesses in local villages distributing improved seeds, inputs and other agricultural products to smallholder farmers.
· Capacity building is moving forward from the PhD level to local extension services.
· Soil health programs are expanding and increasing yields.
· Markets are opening up for smallholder farmers.
· The African Union is urging all countries to devote at least 10% their annual budgets to agriculture and target annual agriculture growth of 6%.
· AGRA is about to launch the first ever African Agriculture Status Report to provide comprehensive resource information to policy makers in Africa. www.agra.org
The historic yields in Africa are quite low, averaging just one ton a hectare, or less than 20 bushels an acre for corn/maize. The introduction of new and improved seeds quickly doubles yields in one season from one ton per hector to two tons per hector or more. When improved seeds are combined with even a micro-dose of fertilizer the yields increase dramatically. Going from one ton to four tons in a year is very possible. When mechanization is introduced, seeds are planted in a row, they don't crowd each other, and the yields increase even more.
Currently, smallholder farmers plant seeds by hand, weed by hand and harvest by hand. Indeed, it is the reason that most farms in Africa are so small. A smallholder family farm simply can't manage more than a hectare or two if all the work has to be done by hand. It is too difficult and labor intensive….which is also why the work falls to the women.
Without diminishing the progress being made on seeds, soils, public policy, markets and capacity building, the time has come to turn hoes into tractors. To be sure, we are talking about small horsepower tractors, or even hand held rotor tillers, for smallholder farmers. John Deere, for example, manufactures a 35 horsepower tractor in India for smallholder farmers and other manufactures are focusing on this market as well.
The question is “how”? How do we go about establishing a mechanization program? How do we efficiently reach smallholder farmers, finance the purchase of a small tractor, train someone to use the machines and service the tractors? The last thing you want to see is rusting tractors in the fields.
Thought is being given to these questions at AGRA, AID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and in the private sector as well. Ideas are starting to emerge. As noted above, there are now some 21,000 certified agrodealers in Africa supported by AGRA. The countries with the most agrodealers are Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi and Rwanda. Working through agrodealers and farmer organizations to introduce mechanization, rather than with individual farmers, would provide several advantages. It would provide a “home” for the tractor, a local business to make the purchase and a person to train. The dealer, in turn, could rent the tractor, operate the tractor for the farmer, move it from farm to farm, or extend use of the tractor as a service to their customers in the village. Indeed, new small businesses might actually start up around renting out the tractors.
There is also a growing network of farmer organizations in Africa. The overall objective of the Farmer Organization Support Center for Africa (FOSCA) is to improve access for smallholder farmers to high-quality products and services. FOSCA works with farmer organizations to improve their ability to respond to their members. Farmer organizations will be important to the distribution of mechanization services.
A tractor would not only improve the productivity of the land but it would also improve human productivity. It might allow children to attend school rather than help their parents in the fields. A farmer might be able to expand from one or two hectares to five hectares to better sustain the family and also enter the market place to sell what they don't need to feed their family. The social impact of improving yields cannot be underestimated.
With improved seeds, inputs, expanding markets, capacity building, favorable public policy….and mechanization, Africa has the capacity to feed itself, and to do so in very few years. When this happens the implications will extend far beyond Africa. Most of the world's unused and underused agriculture land is in Africa. When Africa turns the corner from a food importer to a food exporter it will go a long way toward achieving global food security.
Marshall Matz, formerly Counsel to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, founded the World Food Program-USA, and works with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. He specializes in agriculture and food policy at OFW Law in Washington, D.C. email@example.com
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