Op-Ed: The 'African Century' can be real

By Guest Author

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By Mike Mack

The continent can be food-secure within a generation. That's a boon for business and humanity alike.

Camp David has been the home to many historic moments, from triumphs in Middle East diplomacy to steely Cold War planning. The scene I witnessed there on Saturday-when African leaders from Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania stood side-by-side with G-8 leaders-deserves to be celebrated as another landmark: the global recognition that Africa has the potential to be transformed through agricultural development.

Over the last decade, six of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies were not in Asia, but in Africa, where the middle class is expected to grow to 100 million by 2015 from 60 million today. As African incomes rise and cities grow, an emerging urban consumer class is demanding a better diet, with more protein and greater variety. Will Africa be able to provide it?

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Most Africans still live on less than $2 a day, and famines in the Horn of Africa and grinding poverty in other African countries remain a focus of international concern. But there is now the realistic hope that Africa can start feeding itself and become an export powerhouse equal to its size. Brazil has won headlines around the world with its explosive farm exports, with total crop values more than quadrupling in recent years. Africa's potential is arguably greater: The total amount of arable land in Africa is more than three times that of Brazil.

Africa's potential to become a booming food producer, competing with giants like China and Brazil in food exports, is a bonanza for international investors. If you want to know if African agribusiness is "real," you can now look beyond the talk about the problems to the plans being implemented on the ground.

It was with this opportunity in mind that I participated in the Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security in Washington, D.C., the day before the Camp David summit. This event marked important progress in the effort to replace aid with international investment in sustainable agricultural businesses. In short, it is a public-private effort to generate real business.

Syngenta's business plan fits this mold, as we're committing to invest a total of $500 million over the next 10 years to transform African agriculture with shared knowledge, tools, technologies and services. Our aim is to develop a $1 billion business by 2022, with some 700 additional employees-many of whom will be field advisors trained in agronomy-to bring innovative and sustainable methods to more than five million African farmers, enabling them to increase their productivity by 50% or more. Our priority countries for developing these partnerships are Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and Tanzania.

We have already seen how international investment in technology and more sustainable agricultural practices helped Vietnam become a world force in rice exports. We hope to boost Africa's annual rice production similarly, while helping millions of African farmers and farm workers increase the production of corn, vegetables and other crops.

For smallholder farmers in Africa, one of the biggest obstacles to greater productivity is that they bear the same huge risks that are associated with agriculture worldwide. We plan to change this state of play by expanding an insurance program against bad weather, pioneered by the Syngenta Foundation, called Kilimo Salama, or "Safe Agriculture" in Swahili. The program relies on low-cost mobile phone payment and data systems coupled with automated, solar-powered weather stations to provide affordable, "pay-as-you-go" insurance against drought and excess rain for thousands of smallholder farmers in Kenya.

The program's growth has been explosive. Only 200 wary farmers participated during Kenya's 2009 drought, the worst in decades. When these farmers received payouts for bad weather, 11,000 additional farmers signed up right away to insure their seeds and other inputs. Now this insurance protects some 46,000 farmers. There is no reason why this program cannot be adapted throughout much of Africa.

Critics may say that such ventures exploit Africa, both people and land. But Syngenta is motivated by growth and improving knowledge and technology in farming, as we did when we invested in Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia and other developing agricultural markets.

Farming needs to become profitable and sustainable in Africa for both large and small farmers, who are typically women. For this to happen, the transformation must be African-owned and African-led, and can no longer be dominated by aid.

We see Africa attaining food security within a generation. That Africa is now a major investment opportunity deserves to be seen as a boon for business and humanity alike.

Mr. Mack is CEO of Syngenta AG in Basel, Switzerland.

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