Last week the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) turned global. Some 10,000 people from around the world, three times the normal attendance, watched and participated. There were several hundred physically present in Kigali, socially distant, wearing masks, but all the others attended online. The Forum has become the premier event for African Agriculture. The theme this year was “Feeding Africa’s Cities, Opportunities, Challenges, and Policies for Linking African Farmers with Growing Urban Food Markets.”

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda was the co-host, and Dr. Agnes Kalibata, the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) was the coordinator, but participation was clearly global.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair presented at the AGRF for the third time, but virtually this year. U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Under Secretary Ted McKinney participated along with high level United Nations (UN) officials, African Union officials, the Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and many more.

The Forum played out with an eye on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) for 2030 and the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit scheduled for next year. Dr. Kalibata will also serve as the UN Special Ambassador to the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021. When the UN Deputy Secretary General, Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, was asked why this UN Summit will be different from those in the past, she answered “because an African woman will be in charge.”

The UN’s second SDG is to achieve zero hunger by 2030. However, as they point out, after decades of steady decline, the number of people who suffer from hunger – as measured by the prevalence of undernourishment – began to slowly increase again in 2015. Current estimates show that nearly 690 million people are hungry, or 8.9 percent of the world population – up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.

According to the World Food Program, led by former Governor David Beasley of South Carolina, 135 million suffer from acute hunger largely due to man-made conflicts, climate change and economic downturns.

At the same time, a profound change in both the African and the global food and agriculture systems are needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are hungry today – and the additional 2 billion people the world will have by 2050. Increasing agricultural productivity and sustainable food production are crucial to help alleviate the perils of hunger.

The AGRF focused on resilience, nutrition, trade/markets and trying to bring it all together by defining a comprehensive food system for Africa. “We need more food” African Union Commissioner Josefa Sako said bluntly. But COVID-19 has made this more complicated, noted Tony Blair. (After the Forum, on Sunday, September 13, 2020, the New York Times had a major story, “The Other Way COVID-19 Kills: Hunger” pointing to South Asia and Africa.)

The Forum again featured the “Deal Room” where there were presentations on investment opportunities from an incredible array of countries including Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda, Togo and Senegal. There was a big focus on women in agribusiness with sessions looking at how to amplify women’s voices through technology and interviews with a number of women entrepreneurs.

Deputy Secretary General of the UN Mohammed stressed the need for realistic expectations and recognized “the local level is the weakest” link in the food systems chain. She hit the nail on the head. The policy officials in Africa and around the world are all in agreement. The challenge is taking it to the farmers at the local level. “Our best has not been enough” noted President Paul Kagame.

The political leaders who spoke at the Forum all agreed that the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement must be implemented, rather than reinventing the wheel. This agreement was entered into in 2019 but has yet to be implemented. Tony Blair stressed that major progress in Africa will be made if political leaders do nothing else but implement this agreement and break down trade barriers.

Under Secretary Ted McKinney told the Forum: “My International Organization (IO) team, as well as Team Africa in the Foreign Agriculture Service want to lift up Africa, as I do. AGRA is the primary public/private organization to help make it happen.”

Ted McKinney Official USDA Headshot

Ted McKinney

Watching the Forum from afar this year, a change is noticeable in Africa that mirrors a global concern. The focus is still on increasing the production of food, but more attention is being paid to the production of nutritious food produced in a sustainable manner. Climate change is real in Africa.

Africa has the potential to be self-sufficient in food and even to export food. They have the land, the natural resources and most importantly, the desire. Unfortunately, Africa still imports billions of dollars in food that should be produced in Africa. Further, some of the food produced in Africa is shipped overseas for processing, only to be imported back as finished products – in part because trade between countries is so difficult within the continent.

Dr. Agnes Kalibata was the former Minister of Agriculture in Rwanda. Working with President Kagame, together they turned Rwanda food security around after the genocide. Now, at AGRA, her leadership is felt throughout the continent; and the UN Secretary General has asked her to help bring the global community together on food systems. It will not be easy, or quick. As noted by Kalibata “we are a global community.” It is true. We are linked by trade, the internet and, unfortunately, COVID-19. The world is growing but also getting smaller.

Africa is making great progress on the development of seeds, inputs, public policy, including trade, but “taking it to the farmers” to quote Dr. Norman Borlaug, is still a challenge. The local level is the weakest link as noted by UN Deputy Secretary General Mohammed. Progress is being made, the Agro-Dealer network is expanding, mechanization is being introduced but reaching more smallholder farmers in rural villages is a major challenge.

Dr. Kalibata closed the 10th annual Forum by saying: “As Africa's economies advance and cities grow, we need to seize the moment and improve linkages to Africa's largest producers - its millions of smallholder farmers- by investing more in urban food markets, coherence of food governance between cities and producers and food safety. These will enhance the competitiveness of our food industry, bolster regional food trade, and position Africa to be a better trade partner with the rest of the world, We must not relent in our effort to transform food systems for the benefit of everyone and build stronger, resilient and more sustainable food systems."

The entire sequence is available to watch on YouTube.

Marshall Matz specializes in agriculture and food security at OFW Law in Washington, D.C.