Home Green/Sustainable Creating Resilient Food Systems in Africa: Interview with Shenggen Fan, Director General...

Creating Resilient Food Systems in Africa: Interview with Shenggen Fan, Director General of International Food Policy Research Institute

By Skye Lawrence, Africa Agribusiness Magazine

AAM: You recently participated in a panel discussion entitled, How to Build Resilience in the Face of Climate Change and Weather Shocks. What is your vision for a resilient global food system, particularly in Africa?

Shenggen: I think a globally resilient food system is one where everybody has constant, stable access to nutritious food. It is as simple as that. A resilient system occurs at a global level where there are functioning and efficient systems with no trade barriers, restrictions, and food can move to where it is needed. That is on the global level; the national level needs to produce enough nutritious food, which includes imports and stocks. We need to have the right amount of stocks because when there are shocks, whether they are weather or conflict-related, there needs to be adequate food in the national pantry so that food can be distributed efficiently.

AAM: Which “links” of the value chain are the most important to creating this system?

Shenggen: Storage is really important for building the value chain in Africa. It has two purposes. One is to help poor, hungry people. The other is for farmers to get higher prices. As you know during harvest season everybody’s trying to sell, so the prices go down, but if they can store their produce they can wait until later in the season when there is high demand and therefore get higher prices. For this farmers really need to have good infrastructure: warehouses, facilities, and in many cases cold storage.

Storage is one example of a business in Africa where private sector players can play important roles to build commercially viable businesses. Not all farmers need to individually have these facilities.  The farmer could pay a fee to store their grains in a commercial structure, which allows the private sector to make money. Storage for commercial farm goods would work just the way a personal storage unit does. If you go away, you can leave your stuff there. All you have to do is pay a fee. This allows farmers to “go away” to wait for higher prices before they retrieve their grain to sell.

The private sector can also provide other important “links” in the chain, for instance traders, seed companies, post-harvest processing, and transportation.  Private sector activity can really increase the value of the entire value chain, and smallholders can benefit when they capture some of that value addition.  An example of this is the Ethiopian commodity exchange. It sets up warehouses in different parts of the country where farmers can store coffee, tea and grain.

But I have to say, this is all production side. For the consumption side, having adequate reserves plays a crucial role in preventing malnutrition crises. For example, during the 2007-2008 food crisis Bangladesh did not have enough reserves. In the meantime there wasn’t enough food in the international market. That’s why the country was really panicked. We need to avoid that situation in Africa with adequate warehousing for reserves.

In 2002 the Horn of Africa food crisis taught us a hard lesson. We learned that the international aid agencies like the World Food Programme needed access to food to purchase in order to distribute it to the poor in Somalia.  We need regional reserves in the appropriate quantity that are close to hotspots. Having too much reserve is a waste, but not having enough is a major problem. Trade is a very important element because it is the best way to ship food from surplus areas to deficit areas. In the meantime the reserve can help the poor through the shock. Overall trade, stock, and reserve have to be looked at very carefully.

We have talked a lot about having a globally resilient food system, but more importantly is the resilient community food system. Everybody needs to make sure they have certain strategies to ensure their families have access to food, for example through insurance, their own storage or community sharing mechanisms.

AAM: What is the difference between “stock” and “reserves”?

Shenggen: Stocks and reserves are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are important differences. Stocks are commonly used as a way to stabilize prices. By buying and selling grain at strategic times, marketing boards or governments can help support farmers and improve food availability to consumers through physical grain stocks. But this strategy has limitations—in particular, they do not effectively address food security emergencies during a national or international food crisis.

Strategic grain reserves are primarily intended to guarantee availability of food in situations of extreme weather or crisis. Some reserves also function as a part of pricing policies, but this is not recommended. Most of the time, strategic grain reserves with this kind of price support does not work well. But a reserve like Ethiopia’s Emergency Food Security Reserve Administration, which is not involved in buying and selling grain, has been very successful. They have helped address quite a few food security emergencies since its creation in the 1990s.

There are ways to develop smart strategic grain reserves, but they must be well managed and their policies must be market-friendly and context specific. Establishing linkages with pre-existing food safety nets, like school feeding programs, can help improve the effectiveness of reserves. Overall, developing a functional grain reserve will provide an extra measure of food security in times of crisis.

AAM: How important a role does research into diverse crop varieties play in creating a resilient food system?

Shenggen: There are two answers. One is for the existing crops. We still have great potential to improve their resilience by increasing tolerance against heat waves, flood drought, frosts. The new variety should be able to withstand these elements. The second important factor is nutrition. The new varieties could have enhanced nutrition through the selection of seeds and through breeding to increase nutrition.

Farmers also need to diversify their crops so they are growing more than just one staple crop such as rice or wheat, which can be vulnerable to the elements. However, if farmers diversify, particularly with vegetables and fruits, they become quite resilient and they have the benefit of consuming more nutritious and micronutrient-rich foods. You don’t actually need to do much research because it’s more about knowledge transfer, effective policies and incentives.

AAM: Where is climate change effecting farmers the most?

Shenggen: Right now we still don’t know a lot. There’s a data problem and some modeling issues. However, we do know that in some of the dry areas, particularly just south of Sub-Saharan Africa (south of the desert) the droughts are already happening. I’m afraid that because of climate change their frequency and intensely will increase. The Sahel and the Horn of Africa, these are probably the two areas that will suffer the most from climate change.

AAM: What government/private sector responses have been successful in regions combating climate change? Which responses have failed?

Shenggen: Responses have been somewhere in the middle; well, perhaps closer to the failing side of the spectrum. There are some small successes where farmers have begun to plant drought resistant crops, invest in irrigation, and diversify away from planting just one or two crops which are very vulnerable to climate change. We have seen some successes, but definitely more needs to be done. For example, we need more research on  drought tolerant varieties, and more investment in irrigation and water catchment systems capable of moving water from surplus to deficit areas.

AAM: How important are farms of scale for a secure food system? What tools are needed to move “smallholders” to becoming “medium holders”?

Shenggen: At the global level I think it is clear that the size of farms has to be increased, particularly in emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and Vietnam. This is because people are moving to the cities. For Africa we have to be careful because urbanization has to happen, and the non-farm sector has to develop before farm size increases. Without development of rural nonfarm sector you push the people off of their land. These people will become homeless, the people without jobs in the city. Then you will have African spring! Not just Arab Spring. It is very critical to make sure that unless they can move out voluntarily, simply increasing the size of farms would do more harm than good. I think the first thing Africa needs to think about is the development of the rural, nonfarm sector. This is the experience of Asia. You need to move people outside of the agricultural sector, without moving them to cities. This is where smaller cities can be a good solution because they present economic opportunities for non-farm employment and are an alternative to megacities.

“Pulling out” is better than “pushing out”. Pulling out means that there are jobs in cities so people voluntarily go to the city for a better life, income and entertainment. We call this pulling out. Pushing out means that because of population pressure, the available land in your village continues to be divided to the point where there is not enough land for everybody. Because people don’t have viable livelihoods in the rural area they move to the city. This is how you create urban slums. The good lesson is Vietnam and China because farmers move to the cities voluntarily. The bad lesson was India some years ago, small holders lost their land and moved to the cities, but they did not have jobs so now you see big slums in Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi.

AAM: Is another reason for getting “pushed out” the increasing size of farms spurred by foreign investment? If this is not happening yet, do you see this being a factor in the future as foreign investment increases in the agricultural sector and land concessions are given in Ethiopia, Ghana, and other countries?

Shenggen: As I mentioned, increasing farm sizes can push people out, particularly in Africa where the rural, non-farm sector is not as developed. It has not happened to the extent we have seen in India. Foreign investment in land is happening in Africa, though there is no consensus yet of its impact on smallholders getting “pushed out”, or on food security.

Foreign investment in land in Africa can benefit smallholders in need of investment in agriculture, but there are serious risks. There are risks of displacement of smallholders and reduced access to resources for local communities. There are also implications for food security, as often times foreign investors buy fertile land in poor, food-insecure countries. These lands are often used to produce biofuels. There is not much of a market for alternative energy in Africa. Investing in food projects would yield higher returns to local food availability.

Foreign direct investment in land must not undermine the food security and nutrition or the livelihoods of poor people. To get to a win-win situation, there must be contracts in place so that poor farmers are not forcibly displaced, but can reap the benefits of increased investment and shared knowledge. Innovative joint ventures, such as contract farming, can meet the needs of both investors and rural communities. It is a task for the government to provide a strong legal and institutional framework to ensure that investments in agriculture benefit the poor. We also need to empower local communities by increasing their capacity for land governance and contract negotiation skills.

AAM: What role do local scientific institutions play in creating in-country policy and extension services?

Shenggen: A huge, huge, huge role! Currently the major policies and technologies came from outside of Africa from organizations such as the World Bank, Food and Agriculture Organization and IFPRI. This is good for now before Africa has its own capacity. My vision is that in the future major policies should be analyzed, recommended, proposed, monitored and implemented by local agencies at the national level in Africa.  Technologies need to be adapted to local weather, climate, soil, and economic conditions. This is not just for the public sector, but also the private sector. Local companies that know the area can effectively disseminate knowledge and technology to farmers. Africa lacks capacity; that is the major weakness. Unless Africans have their own capacity to lead, own and drive their strategies and technologies development will not come.

AAM: Are there any exemplary universities in Africa that have created successful programs?

Shenggen: There are some good universities in Africa, for example the University of Ghana, Makerere University in Uganda, and many universities in South Africa. They have trained lots of good scientists, researchers and government officials, but the scale is just too small. We need hundreds, thousands, of universities where they can train Africans in technology, business, and policy. Capacity building in Africa is key!