Last week in Arusha, Tanzania, former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan told 1,200 delegates attending the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) that “African agriculture is now accelerating beyond the tipping point” and is the long term solution to global food and nutrition security. Mr. Annan is correct on both points. The African Green Revolution is now under way and it is the key to both African and global food security. 

Agriculture development has long been viewed as the economic key to African, but it is not always recognized as the solution to global food security and our ability to feed nine billion people by 2050. Africa has 60 percent of the underutilized agricultural land in the world and is, therefore, the key to global food security.

The AGRF was coordinated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) along with several key partners.  The dynamic new President of AGRA is Jane Karuku, based in Nairobi, KenyaRecently, Ms. Karuku told the magazine African Business:  “I am convinced now, more than ever, that we have to start looking at farming in Africa as a business with the potential not just to feed our people but to be an engine for development.  Agriculture has the potential to transform Africa into a global leader.  There must be collaboration between the public and private sectors to invest in agriculture and grow economies strategically.” 

That emphasis on the private sector at the AGRF was echoed by Secretary General Annan; Dr. Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania; Dr. Akin Adesina, the Minister of Agriculture from Nigeria; and many other speakers.  There were a number of representatives from multinational companies in attendance, as well as many small and medium sized companies.  The forum also included breakout panels dedicated to building public-private partnerships. 

         Jane Karuku 

So how does Africa grow itself out of poverty?  Let’s look at a few numbers. As Dr. Namanga Ngongi, an expert of African agriculture and AGRA’s former President, noted: “If you only increase productivity by 50 percent in Africa, Africa will go from food deficit to food surplus.  And that can be done with access to simple inputs that are available today.”

In Africa, the average yield for maize is only one ton per hectare.  However, when newer and improved seeds are used along with micro-doses of nutrients, yields can triple to 3 tons per hectare. That can happen in one year! At that point, Africa would be self-sufficient. When better management, irrigation and mechanization are introduced, the yields could double or triple yet again and Africa would become a net exporter, helping to feed a hungry planet. 

None of that will be easy, but I share Secretary General Annan’s optimism that it is doable and must be done.  The immediate first steps, in my opinion, are to:

·         Ensure newer seeds and nutrients reach all smallholder farmers;

·         Help farmers get the credit or resources they need to purchase these inputs;

·         Help ensure there is a market for their products; and

·         Encourage smallholder farmers to take the risk and use existing technology. 

Let’s remember that, for most smallholders, their families have used traditional seeds without any nutrients for generations.  They are relying on their production, first and foremost, to feed their children.  Therefore, making a change to newer seeds requires a major risk, even if they have the resources or credit.  Syngenta, for one, is working with smallholders to develop mechanisms for sharing the risk and pilot improved seeds on only a part of their small farm.

“Significant progress is being made,” noted Tip O’Neill, President of International Raw Materials, in Philadelphia, PA.  Through AGRA, over 15,000 agro dealers are now selling hybrid seeds and nutrients in small packages at the local level in the high priority countries across AfricaSome 25 percent of the smallholders are being reached.  If that percent can be increased by just 5 or 10 percent each year over the next five years, the face of Africa will change.

President Kikwete reported in his keynote remarks: “There is evidence that the productivity of smallholder farmers is increasing.  In Kilombero District, for example, the yields for maize have increased from 1.5 tons per hectare to 4.5 tons per hectare; the yields for rice have increased from 2.5 ton per hectare to 6.5 tons per hectare.  Overall, we have now attained 95 percent food self-sufficiency.”  

The key is working within the African agricultural  structure.  Africa will not become Iowa or India. We must assist African leaders in developing a uniquely African Green Revolution.  That means the focus will have to be on smallholder, women farmers. “Across the board, there must be an unwavering focus on improving the productivity and profitability of smallholder farmers, most of whom are women,” said Secretary General Kofi Annan, alluding to the fact that 70 to 80 percent of the farmers in Africa are smallholder farmers. 

There will have to be other elements to the African Green Revolution including, capacity building, land reform and public policy.  For example, it is still easier to export from Africa than trade within AfricaBut the actions outlined above are, in my opinion, the highest priorities.   

In the words of President Kikwete: “Let me conclude by saying that we are poised to succeed in our quest for eradicating hunger and poverty in Africa through transforming agriculture.”

As they say in Africa, “Kilimo Kwanza,” meaning “Agriculture First.” 

Note:  the full text of the major speeches can be found at

About the Author: Marshall Matz serves on the Board of the World Food Program—US; the Congressional Hunger Center and the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. He is a partner at OFW Law in Washington,