By Calestous Juma.

Africa’s clichéd image of ‘basket case’ could be transformed in a generation to ‘bread basket’, a continent capable of feeding itself despite the twin challenges of a still burgeoning population and the exigencies of climate change. That is the clear and confident message of The new harvest, whose lead author, Kenyan-born Calestous Juma of Harvard University, has produced a book of evidence-based recommendations for transforming African food production. As Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at Harvard, he recognises the shortcomings of the past, particularly the lack of political and, consequently, financial commitment to agriculture, but he also instances the recent changes in political and investment emphasis that could provide foundation for a new and more fruitful era.

A historic lack of investment has resulted in inadequate roads connecting rural areas to markets, a mere 4 per cent of Africa’s cropland irrigated compared to 39 per cent in Asia, ineffective extension services, lack of credit facilities and, overall, poor morale among those who work the land, mainly women. Together with insecure land tenure, soil nutrient loss, erosion, and huge post harvest crop losses, there has been widespread despair. Calestous Juma and his fellow contributing authors – 20 eminent agriculturists and economists from around the world – seek to dispel past gloom and hold out the realistic prospect of Africa adequately feeding all its people within a generation.

The reasons for optimism are outlined by Juma in his Perspective elsewhere in New Agriculturist, notably the recent surge in investment in agriculture in Africa, much of it by African states themselves, which has resulted in improved communications (roads and telecommunications), and new attention to facilitating farmer access to both inputs and points of sale. Malawi and Ghana are cited as two outstanding examples of where giving agriculture priority in policymaking and funding has reaped striking rewards for farmers and consumers alike. Malawi’s investment in agriculture of 16 per cent of government spending resulted in the highest surplus production ever in 2006/7. While between 1991 and 2006, Ghana nearly halved its poverty rate from 51 to 28 per cent, and is the only African country to have reduced its Global Hunger Index by more than 50 per cent. (Further causes for confidence are 15 largely African innovations for producing and processing food, detailed in the 2011 State of the World report.)

Juma writes that “In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture directly contributes to 34% of GDP and 64% of employment. Growth in agriculture is at least two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in other sectors…it is no surprise that agricultural and extension services can yield a 35% rate of return in sub-Saharan Africa.” And he goes on to say that a financial incentive will be the projected growth in the African food market from US$50 billion in 2010 to US$150 billion by 2030. However, turning optimism into success demands commitment and Juma acknowledges that “Improving Africa’s agricultural performance will require significant political leadership, investment and deliberate policy efforts.” There is much at stake but the very positive personal response to The new harvest of over 20 African Heads of State is significant in itself.