Turmoil roils global food system

[Pictures courtesy PhotOlé] Left to Right: Dr. Chime Obodozie, Pilar Martinez, Pierre Diegane Kadet, Zakaria Issahaku, Hadija Jabiri and Lawrence Kent

Panel discusses unprecedented challenges facing small-scale farmers

A “triple gut punch” of war, the Covid pandemic, and climate change have massively increased extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, a spokesman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says. Extreme poverty in the region has increased from 150 to almost 200 million people. That has reversed years of progress in reducing poverty, Lawrence Kent noted.

He made the comments in a panel on risks to the global food system at MEDA’s annual convention.

Three-quarters of Africa’s population lives in rural areas with livelihoods directly connected to farming, Kent said. He has visited many of these areas in his work as a senior program officer in the Gates Foundation’s agriculture development team. Ninety-five percent of agricultural production in the region is rain-fed. That means drought and other extreme weather conditions are having an increasing impact on small-scale farmers, he said. Of the three factors that have hammered farmers in recent years, the “climate change challenge is the one that scares us the most.” Other panelists agreed.

Pilar Martinez is the founder and director of Cosecha Partners. Cosecha supplies fine cocoa, specialty coffee, and other organic ingredients to the food industry. It connects rural Nicaraguan farmers with high-value, organic food purchasers to improve their livelihoods. Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere and the fourth-most vulnerable to climate change, Martinez said. Environmental degradation has reduced the productivity and yields of Nicaraguan coffee farmers. That has got to the point where “they can barely make ends meet,” she said.

Hadija Jabiri sees similar trends. Her Tanzanian agribusiness works with over 5,000 farmers, 80 percent of whom are women.
Jabiri also noted the impact of extreme weather on small-scale farmers. “It’s high time for acting, going to actions (to combat climate change),” she said. The Ukraine-Russia war has increased fertilizer prices beyond what many farmers can afford, she said. The Tanzanian government has tried to help by subsidizing the cost. Panelists offered a range of suggestions on how to improve the food system.

Hadija Jabiri, center, speaks as Zakaria Issahaku, left, and Lawrence Kent, right, listen

Dr. Chime Obodozie, a medical doctor turned food entrepreneur, has focused fully on food processing since 2019. His Chime Foods supplies food to 20 of 36 Nigerian states and works with over 500 small-scale farmers. Eighty percent of those farmers are women. Chime Foods rebrands and repackages indigenous grains such as fonio, an ancient heritage grain. This helps to uphold the food culture in Nigeria and contribute to a stronger economy. He called for an increased focus on local foods, creating reliable and sustainable demand for farmers’ production. Reducing packaging and logistics costs will improve the sustainability of Chime’s efforts to source and package indigenous grains.

Obodozie praised MEDA’s Nigeria project for providing his firm with matching grants. That program helped him to buy machinery and more than triple processing capacity from 300 kilograms (661 pounds) a day to about a ton. When small and medium-sized enterprises thrive, they provide opportunities along the entire agri-food value chain, he said. He also mentioned the need to improve rural infrastructure and for public-private partnerships to provide irrigation systems.

Lawrence Kent

Kent pointed to low productivity among African farmers as a major concern. Average yields in the region are 1.5 tonnes per hectare, versus three tonnes per hectare in parts of Asia and 9-10 in North America. Improved versions of crops will play an important role in increasing yields, he said. Getting there will require providing support to African research organizations and seed production firms as they work to develop heat and drought-resistant crops.

When cassava farmers use new seeds, a project Gates has partnered with MEDA on, their production increases by 45 percent, he said. Kent also stressed the importance of technology, including leveraging the use of smartphones. “We can’t solve the problems of this century using the technology of the last century,” he said.

In some areas of Tanzania, between 40 and 70 percent of production is wasted due to post-harvest losses, Jabiri said. Her firm works to reduce that problem by providing markets for small-scale farmers. Her firm is building software to train farmers on production via a mobile app. The app will provide ideas from planting through harvest.

Cosecha, Pilar’s Nicaraguan company, uses blockchain to provide greater transparency throughout the agri-food value system. Blockchain is an advanced database mechanism that allows information sharing within a business network.

“The climate change challenge is the one that scares us the most”

— Lawrence Kent, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Pilar believes the future of agriculture is organic and regenerative. Cosecha provides technical assistance and training on gaining organic and fair-trade certifications. That is the way to teach subsistence farmers how to connect with international markets and get a better price, she said.

Cosecha is also helping coffee farmers to diversify. They are planting macadamia trees that produce nuts and sequester a lot of carbon in the soil. In six years, a macadamia tree will provide two to three times the income of coffee, Pilar said.

MEDA’s Zakaria Issahaku stressed the importance of inclusiveness, helping marginalized farmers to benefit from their labor. “Economic growth alone is not enough,” said Issahaku, an agricultural market systems specialist. He named several key areas for investment. Agro-processing to add value, improved infrastructure in rural areas and greater use of technology to cut post-harvest crop losses are all important, he said.

Jabiri urged investment to ensure Tanzanian youth enter the agri-food sector and enjoy an environment that sets them up for success. Seventy-five percent of the Tanzanian population are youth, she said.

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