"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

search antimuluzi.blogspot.com

Monday, October 06, 2008

Seeking Africa's green revolution

From the begging bowl to the bread basket: in just two years, Malawi has gone from famine to food surplus - a minor agricultural miracle.

By applying a mixture of crop breeding, soil management, irrigation and diversification, agro-science experts are helping subsistence farmers to cope with climate change and buck the trend in neighbouring African countries.

BBC science and environment reporter James Morgan has gone into the field to meet the families who are sowing the seeds of a uniquely African green revolution - one which is as kind to the environment as it is to the economy.

"If [environmentalists] lived for just one month among the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertiliser and irrigation canals."

So said Norman Borlaug, one of the founding fathers of the original Green Revolution - credited with wiping out starvation in Asia.

But can technology really be the saviour of Africa's struggling farmers? It has become a terribly unfashionable opinion in the UK, where "green" campaigners are no longer content to denounce GM crop trials. They simply rip them up.

"Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy," said Borlaug. "Starvation is."

I have decided to take Norm up on his wager, by coming to Malawi to see for myself.

Because no matter how many UN reports I've ploughed through, grasping the root cause of the current "food crisis" in Africa is anything but straightforward.

And neither is my journey to Malawi - a sweaty overnight haul which takes me via Kenya, Zambia, and several re-runs of Indiana Jones films. But for heroic inspiration, I look instead to a speech by Kofi Annan, the new chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra) - a $200m, pan-African programme, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations.

"Let us generate a uniquely African Green revolution," says Annan, cutting a heroic pose on my crumpled transcript. "There is nothing more important than this."

It is difficult to argue. Over the last 50 years, African farmers have laboured in the heat, while countries like Mexico, India and the Philippines have undergone a green revolution - applying novel fertilisers and pesticides to churn out bumper harvests of new high-yield varieties of wheat and rice.

Empowering farmers

Meanwhile, Africa has been cultivating greater and greater poverty statistics.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region in the world where per capita food production has steadily declined.

One third of Africans are malnourished. Soils are among the most depleted on Earth. Farmers do not have access to productive seed varieties and those that do have neither the knowledge nor the tools to reap the harvest. Slash and burn still reigns.

Climate change is forecasting ever more variable rainfalls, and more frequent droughts. Add in soaring fuel prices and the scourge of HIV/Aids, and the average African finds himself surrounded in the kind of perilous predicament which from which even Harrison Ford would struggle to escape.

But it is this very challenge that has drawn the world's crop scientists and agro-economists to Malawi. They hope to pioneer novel farming systems that propel Africa towards a new era of food security.

It has already been dubbed by members of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as "a greener revolution".

"Greener" because it works with ecosystems, not against them. A revolution that is "pro-poor and pro-environment", in the words of Mr Annan.

The talk around the conference tables is of "empowering" subsistence farmers to find their own, local solutions - farming techniques which are sustainable, affordable and tailored to local soils, markets and eating preferences.

Over the next week, I'll be taking a look at these projects first hand - catching fish in the desert, planting strange trees in the middle of maize crops.

I'm wondering how women and men, who have been sowing the same maize seeds for generations, really feel about the new hybrid varieties of seeds which are more nutritious, but also more hungry for expensive pesticide and fertiliser.

'Against the grain'

Most of all, I'm curious to find out whether the "miracle" we have read about here in Malawi is bona fide or illusory. Is the revolution underway, or a simple matter of better rainfall?

The facts are these. During the last decade, Malawi suffered six successive years of food shortage, culminating in 2005. One third of the population - 4.5million people - went hungry.

Step forward two years, and Malawi is exporting more than one million metric tonnes of maize, its staple crop.

The government, against the advice of the IMF and the World Bank, has handed out vouchers to 1.5m of the country's poorest farmers, enabling them to buy "inputs" - seeds, fertiliser and pesticides. Meanwhile, yields have mushroomed. Malawians are selling maize to Kenya and giving food aid to Zimbabwe.

The success was hailed last year with Oxfam's Malcolm Fleming describing to the BBC how Malawi was going against the grain of African agriculture.

So when I bump into Malcolm, a well-kent face in my native Scotland, on the flight to Lilongwe, I don't hesitate to offer a warm handshake of congratulations.

"I'm afraid that things have moved on since then," he sighs. "The harvests have been great, but still the food prices in Malawi are still rocketing."

Why? "That's the question," he continues. "The closer I look, the more complicated it becomes. But from what I gather, the maize is being sold abroad at greater prices, and that keeps the prices up in Malawi."

Malcolm is here doing research in the lead up to World Food Day on 16 October. Helping him to raise awareness is another familiar Scottish face, but I'm afraid I am sworn to secrecy. All will be revealed in due course.

"Rising food prices might not be much of a problem for me or you," says Mr Fleming, "but if you spend 80% of your household income on food, and then the price doubles..."

It is a welcome serving of realism pie to chew on as I step out of Lilongwe airport.

The pavements are covered in a blanket of purple blossom - it looks like a fairytale. And the boys cartwheeling down the red dirt roads seem full of beans. But the lumps in their bellies tell a different story.

No comments: