Forgotten Potential

It is sometimes easy to forget that Africa as a continent was once viewed as the bread basket of the world. It is estimated now by the FAO and other international organisations that African Agriculture is underperforming by over five times to its potential. Around 60% of the population of West Africa are engaged in subsistence agriculture and around 75-90% of their annual income is spent on feeding their families, exacerbated by increasing global food prices. Many of these countries have to import up to 60% of their domestic food requirements and totally unnecessarily.

‘Senegal is among the most stable and promising countries in the West African region  ... it has great potential to increase agriculture-led economic growth. The country has abundant land, motivated agricultural entrepreneurs, and access to international markets through a major port.’ (USAID-August 2011)
Beyond these macro statistical overviews and statements, and perhaps the best example to highlight how far a little finance, help and support can go and why Sunu Agro is so active and enthusiastic in this area, is from the following extract:
‘Hans Spalholz, an agriculture graduate from Cornell, volunteered with Peace Corps in Senegal from 2007 to 2009. Hans was located in the Kolda region of southern Senegal. When Hans arrived in 2007, farmers in his village were struggling to produce enough food to feed their families; farmers’ yields were low because of soil erosion and depletion as well as climatic variability. Hans began a program that coupled access to improved inputs with education about farming techniques. Hans began working with farmers in the dry season, meeting with them one on one to explain the significance of proper spacing, the advantages of weeding, the advantages of retaining manure in the fields (rather than burning it), the optimal application of fertilizer, and the benefits of purchasing improved seed varieties. Because farmers could not afford to purchase improved seeds and fertilizer, Hans created a loan program where he loaned farmers money to purchase them. Typical loans ranged from $25 to $75, and farmers had to match Hans’s contribution. Throughout the rainy season, Hans reviewed key points with farmers, meeting with them both in and out of the fields to monitor their progress. Both farmers and their families were educated about proper farming techniques. At the end of the season, farmers used the proceeds from the sale of their harvest to repay the loans that Hans had given . The combination of improved farming techniques with better seed varieties and fertilizer application had outstanding results. Despite less favourable rains in 2008 than in 2007, maize yields were six times the previous year’s yields and millet yields were almost doubled for farmers involved in Hans’s program. In 2007, the average yield for maize in this village was 500 kg/ha; in 2008, it was 3125 kg/ha. For the 2008 season, farmers that chose to participate in Hans’s program had average millet yields of 2200 kg/ha; those who did not participate averaged 1250 kg/ha. For maize, the return on investment of participating farmers averaged 425% (Peace Corps 2009). The success of Hans’s program helped facilitate a partnership between Peace Corps Senegal and the United States Agency for International Develop (USAID) focusing on long-term strategies for improving food security in Senegal (Hendrick 2010). Although micro-lending is beyond the capacity of Peace Corps as an institution, Chris Hendrick, the Director of Peace Corps Senegal, acknowledges that access to credit for improved inputs is one of the crucial missing links in improving yields in Senegal (2010). For this reason, one of the strategic focuses of the Peace Corps/USAID program is to facilitate the expansion of rural communities’ access to appropriate sources of credit (USAID 2009).’ (University of Pennsylvania, Jan 2010)
From the above example no one should feel squeamish about involvement in Agricultural opportunities because at the heart of the food crises is the need to get more out of less. There are many ways to do this from fertilisers to irrigation, better farm equipment to better R&D. But all this requires investment and capital, and no more so than in Africa.