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April 2, 2000


Africa's Agricultural Challenges for the 21st Century: Borlaug


Agricultural Challenges for the 21st Century

Norman E. Borlaug, President, Sasakawa Africa Association

(Speaking at
Lilongwe, Malawi. March 30,

Times_New_RomanIt is a pleasure to
visit Malawi, and to address the agricultural development community. In
particular, I would like to thank officials from the Ministry of
Agriculture and Irrigation for their hospitality and collaborative
spirit towards the Sasakawa-Global 2000 (SG 2000) project in Malawi,
and towards our Director, Dr. Jose Antonio Valencia. As some of you may
know, SG 2000 is really a partnership of two NGOs-the Sasakawa Africa
Association, of which I am President, and the Global 2000 program of
the Carter Center, whose Chairman is former U.S. President Jimmy

Over the past week, I have been privileged be part of a delegation from
the Nippon Foundation of Japan-the SG 2000 donor-which has been led by
its President, Mr. Yohei Sasakawa. We visited Nigeria and Malawi, where
we were able to talk to farmers growing MOA/SG 2000-supported
demonstration plots. The food crop yields obtained by these
participating farmers has been impressive, indeed.

In Malawi, the dramatic increase achieved in per capita food production
in 1999, as reported by FAO, gives evidence that the agricultural
intensification program launched by the government last year is having
a visible impact on maize productivity and production. Indeed, recent
FAO food production data indicate that the pace of agricultural growth
in many African countries south of the Sahara has picked up
considerably during the decade of the 1990s, as compared to the 1970s
and 1980s. Let's hope that the days of reporting 2 percent annual
growth-or less-in food production and 3 percent-or more-in population
will soon be behind us forever.

FAO data reported in table 1 shows that during the 1990s food
production per capita in sub-Saharan Africa has increased slightly
faster than population. In some of the countries where SG 2000 has been
working, the increases have been spectacular. For example, per capita
food production in Benin has increased 33%; in Ghana and Sudan 28%; in
Nigeria 26%; in Malawi 15%; and in Guinea, 12%. Among SG 2000 project
countries, only in Zambia, Tanzania, and Uganda has food production
fallen seriously behind population growth, during the past decade. Of
course, statistics like these can mask more recent improvements.
Ethiopia is a good example. When its civil war came to a conclusion in
1992, food production had hit rock bottom, but since then has risen
rapidly, thanks to better agricultural policies, good weather, and the
adoption of higher-yielding technologies. It's time to start spreading
this good news about African agriculture and move away from all of the
gloom and doom that has characterized the reporting over the past two

Table 1. Index of Per Capita Food Production in Sub-

Saharan Africa and in SG 2000 Project Countries

(1989-91=100) 1997 1998 1999

Africa, Developing
101 103 103

Ongoing Projects

Benin 120 119 133

Burkina Faso 101 109 106

Eritrea 87 115 110

Ethiopia 104 97 98

Ghana 112 114 128

Guinea 108 113 112

Malawi 93 104 115

Mali 96 96 96

Mozambique 101 106 104

Nigeria 116 122 126

Uganda 87 91 93

Former Project Countries

Sudan 136 133 128

Tanzania 79 82 80

Togo 116 105 104

Zambia 82 78 83


Source: FAO AGROSTAT (Oct/1999)

On the technological front, we now know that there are many improved
varieties and food production technologies already available-or
well-advanced in the research pipeline-that can double, triple and even
quadruple traditional yields. Earlier-maturing, disease-resistant, and
high-yielding varieties of maize, rice, sorghum, cassava, and grain
legumes offer exciting new possibilities for multiple cropping in the
future, including the introduction of green manure crops and improved
fallows. Minimum tillage systems offer great hope to check soil
erosion, conserve moisture, and reduce the back-breaking work and
drudgery of hand weeding and land preparation. Nutritionally superior
maize varieties now are being enthusiastically adopted by substantial
numbers of farmers in a growing number of countries.

The new tools of genetic engineering will allow us-if scientists are
permitted to use them-to accelerate development of food crop varieties
with greater tolerance to drought, heat, cold, and soil mineral
toxicities; greater resistance to menacing insects and diseases; and
much higher levels of nutritional quality. African governments should
take care not to let these opportunities pass them by. They must
prepare themselves with the necessary legislation and regulations to
ensure proper testing of genetically modified crops, yet still
facilitate adequate access to superior and suitable technologies that
come from such scientific developments.

Africa is a sleeping agricultural giant waiting to be awakened. The
potential is there but you "can't eat potential." To realize this
potential will require greater investments in agricultural research,
extension, infrastructure, transport, general education, and health.
While greater investments in all of these areas are necessary,
improving rural transport systems may be the single-most critical
component to move farmers from a subsistence way of life to a more
prosperous life of small-scale commercial agriculture.

Improved rural transport is essential not only to develop
more-efficient input and food marketing systems, and thus allow
small-scale farmers to compete effectively in commercial agriculture,
but also to reduce the real cost of food to the consumer, which
benefits everyone in society, and especially the poor consumer. We
need to give much greater attention to the challenges of developing the
commercial food chain in Africa-from the farmer to the consumer. This
is especially important for the future, given the rapid rates of
urbanization, and the very real possibility that more Africans will be
living in urban areas 25-30 years from now than in rural areas. How
these consumers will be assured plentiful, safe, and affordable food
supplies, produced in ways that do not damage the natural resource
base, is the central challenge we face.

Nigeria's new President, Olusegun Obasanjo, himself a farmer,
previously served as a member of our Board of Directors for eight years
while a private citizen. Permit me to quote him on African agricultural
development, since I fully share his perspective.

"As long as farming remains, at best, marginally rewarding, young men
and women will drift away from the rural areas to increase the
battalions of the urban poor. The idea, therefore, that African
agriculture should be based only on a half hectare holding is, to say
the least, unappetizing. I want to see people encouraged. I want to see
the evolution of young, emergent, commercial farmers who will be
holding, not a half hectare of land, but 5 to 10 to 20 hectares of
land, and for whom the city will have no big attraction."

In closing, let me say that I think there has been too much
"minimalist" thinking about African agricultural development in recent
years. It's time that we started implementing aggressive and dynamic
field programs that can help African farmers to "prosper" and not just
"survive." Intensification of food production-using modern
technologies on the lands best suited to this use-must be at the very
heart of these efforts. This can be achieved if we work in true
partnerships-farmers, extension workers and scientists; public, private
and non-governmental organizations; and national and international

We have the knowledge to make African agriculture bloom and prosper.
What we need is the political, financial, and institutional will to
ensure that science and technology can be put to work in the service of
the smallholder farmers and poor consumers of this vast continent. It
gives me enormous satisfaction that my organization, Sasakawa-Global
2000, is able to play a small but constructive role in this great