By Tom Daschle
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I have vivid memories of my recent first visit to Africa’s Malawi. Beautiful children with warm, smiling faces, eager to greet a stranger from a foreign land. Small, windowless huts where I was told the difference between the fortunate and the aspiring was a tin roof.
But perhaps the most memorable mental picture of all was the transformation that I witnessed in Malawi’s landscape. It has changed dramatically in the past ten years. Now, in many of its rural areas, this small, poor country could pass for a state in our Midwest.
A traveler sees maize planted literally everywhere . . . in the fields, on the hillsides, along the road, between the huts, and even in yards in the cities. Indeed, maize is arguably more ubiquitous in Malawi than corn in Iowa.
And the amazing thing is that every field, every row, every standing stalk was planted by hand, hoed by hand, and harvested by hand. Not one piece of farm machinery can be seen anywhere in the country.
In many ways, Malawi is leading the African Green Revolution. In less than a decade, Malawi has been transformed from a country dependent on grain imports to one that is now a net grain exporter. But, what accounts for this transformation?
During my recent visit with the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Innovation and Productivity, I learned that Malawi has done this through strong government leadership that is determined to make Malawi and the African continent food secure. As one illustration of this commitment, Malawi and sixteen other African countries in a partnership approach are dedicating significant resources into turning the continent into an “African Food Basket” to ensure Africa is able to feed itself and that no child in Africa dies of hunger, starvation, or malnutrition by 2015.
Unfortunately though, like most of the challenges we face in the world today, the answer to food security is not simple. No one tool can solve the complex problem of feeding the world’s booming population. It will require the entire toolkit.
Malawi, like many developing countries, is a country of smallholder farmers. Some villages grow barely enough to feed themselves. Others, with the help of projects like the Millennium Villages, have the benefits of modern seeds, adequate fertilizer, and storage. The difference means feast or famine. To be successful, farmers in Malawi and developing countries around the world will need access to a range of resources, including better technology that increases production and nutrition, access to markets to participate in commerce, infrastructure like storage and roads, education, extension services and leadership training, particularly for the many women smallholders, and so much more.
So while countries like Malawi are on the right path to making transformational changes in their economy and agricultural productivity through their recent efforts, the question is how they, and countries like them, develop an economic, environmental and social future that is sustainable over the long-term. The challenge of achieving food security will require solutions that enable long-term market development without creating dependence, that make use of innovative technologies that increase productivity without harmful impacts on the environment, and support and cultivate the next generation of farmers and agriculture leaders.
Perhaps most importantly, a challenge of this magnitude demands a complex set of solutions that no one country, organization, company, or government can provide on its own. The need for robust collaboration is key. Between the developed and developing world. Between scientists and producers. Between public and private organizations. Between corporate leaders and small, rural producers. And certainly among government leaders at all levels. Through such collaboration, developing countries can address all of the issues that are critical to obtaining food security – productivity, infrastructure, education, leadership, and regional stability.
Now, having experienced the Midwest of Africa, increasingly the differences and similarities become clearer. The large, mechanized farms of the Midwest may never be a reality in Malawi. But, just as with any farm in the U.S. , for Malawians to succeed in creating an “African Food Basket,” it is essential that we recognize the need for collaboration in creating better education, improved methods for production and crop protection, enhanced nutritional value of crops, and a substantially strengthened market place with the infrastructure to support it.
And when that occurs, those beautiful children whom I embraced in the villages of Malawi will all have so much more to smile about.
About the Author: Tom Daschle works for the global law firm DLA Piper and is chair of the DuPont Advisory Committee on Agricultural Productivity and Innovation. The former lawmaker was elected to represent the state of South Dakota in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 and served four terms. In 1986, the Aberdeen, South Dakota native was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming minority leader in 1994 and also serving on the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. He served as U.S. Senate Majority Leader in 2001-2002.
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