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Call for a bold cadre of leaders to champion innovation in African agri-food

November 25, 2015

Professor Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a people-oriented scientist and the first female President of Mauritius, has a ‘can-do’ message for the African agri-food sector. Africa, she says, has the human capital to transform its agricultural sector. What’s more, growth in African urban markets provides new opportunities for developing agri-enterprises. In the latest CTA white paper, Professor Gurib-Fakim calls for a cadre of high-level champions to back integrated innovation across the agri-food sector – innovation that brings together state-of-the-art technologies and approaches, scales up advances, invests responsibly, spurs policy incentives, provides market-friendly rural infrastructure and creates vibrant regional markets and value chains.

Professor Gurib-Fakim's paper highlights innovative approaches that are enabling farmers, large and small, to create agribusinesses and contribute to wider economic prosperity. Her call comes at an opportune moment. The upcoming Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture conference (GFIA Africa), on the theme Innovations and technologies in agriculture to leapfrog Africa's development, 1–2 December 2015, will be an opportunity to explore the issues she raises in depth.

Agricultural transformation across Africa is patchy but, where there has been transformation, it shows that science, innovation and entrepreneurship are powerful forces for change. Improvements in farm productivity and higher incomes benefitting smallholder farmers and their families in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Nigeria have very clear links to technological innovation. What's needed to fast-track the spread of transformation are bold leaders, champions who bring together governments, researchers and investors to boost investment in the foundations of development – science, technology, engineering and maths – and to push forward supportive policies and incentives that recognise and value sustainable agriculture as a knowledge-intensive productive sector.

A chance to leapfrog development

Africa can build on the experiences of other countries and continents to leapfrog development. Linking investment in infrastructure to specific agricultural programmes, for example by backing schemes to involve training institutions in large-scale infrastructure projects, has proved important in some countries. Other countries have found creative ways of covering the often huge costs of infrastructure. Senegal, for example, harnesses the engineering skills of its military to develop and maintain infrastructure.

African farmers can take advantage of groundbreaking technologies to leap ahead. Professor Gurib-Fakim gives the example of physical analytics, a smart-agriculture technology that can help farmers save up to 20% of the water used to irrigate perennial crops, meaning water savings can be used elsewhere. Crop and weather modelling, and accurate long-term weather forecasting are other advances that can help farmers maximise the use of inputs and increase yields.

Researchers are taking a new look at traditional practices, niche crops and indigenous livestock. New technologies applied to traditional crops such as millet and sorghum are helping tackle climate change and under-nutrition, and stimulating new agri-food enterprises and products such as nutrient-dense food, nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals and bio-herbicides.

Spurs to leapfrogging

No new agricultural technology, however cutting edge and effective, can spur development if rural populations are uneducated and unable to access and use it. Close links among government, the private sector, farmers and universities and research institutes, such as in Germany, the Netherlands and USA, have led to constant innovation in products and services, higher productivity and more efficient processes.

Given a favourable environment, entrepreneurs can grasp groundbreaking advances and take them to market, completing the healthy cycle of technological and economic progress. Entrepreneurs have quickly latched on to the opportunities opened by NERICA – New Rice for Africa, a breakthrough in rice production in Africa – and convinced governments to bring in supportive new policies. Leaders in both public and private sectors can encourage governments to update policies and regulations that enable new technologies, for example biotechnologies and to enforce standards for food products and food-processing facilities.

Investor-friendly policies remove barriers to research, trade and cooperation. The Southern African Development Community, for example, has brought in policies that allow companies to move seeds between countries, register varieties easily and market products regionally. Such policies recognise that an agri-food system that attracts investors can give small-scale farmers access to affordable, high-quality inputs and that thriving food-processing enterprises can help African farmers retain more of the profit from the fruits of their labour.

Bright prospects for the agri-food sector to spearhead development

The prospects for agriculture to spearhead socio-economic development in Africa are bright. Historically, science and innovation have underpinned agricultural growth in particular and economic transformation in general. By championing science and innovation, and acting in concert, African leaders can realise the potential of Africa's human capital and burgeoning urban markets.

State-of-the-art systems that integrate modelling, forecasting and planning across the agri-food sector offer African leaders opportunities to make smart decisions about political, social and technical changes to deal with the multiple challenges of a complex, uncertain world. Championing innovation systems approaches can shift not only the agri-food sector but also entire economies towards sustainable, well-integrated growth that withstands shocks and delivers socio-economic development.


• Download the white paper Innovation, Entrepreneurship and Governance for Sustainable Development of Africa’s Agri-food System
• Learn more about the AgriHack talent competition taking place from 28 November to 2 December at GFIA
• Learn more about the Plug & Play day taking place on 30 November at GFIA
• Read the media release "Partnership launched to accelerate innovation in African farming"
• Read the blog by CTA Director Michael Hailu "CTA at the Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture"
• Download the GFIA Africa infographic


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