Investing in Africa’s Green Revolution

Food scientist and executive Jane Karuku is leading the way for a broader look at adding value to Africa’s crops.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Jane Karuku

A majority of the food produced in sub-Saharan Africa comes from smallholder farmers, mostly women. So investing in them to produce more food makes a lot of sense. In fact, a 1 percent growth in farm productivity contributes to an 11 percent reduction in poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

But helping these farmers grow more crops alone will not necessarily lead to greater food security in Africa. Instead, food security requires a systemic solution involving the entire value chain from the farmer, seeds and harvesting to access to finance, storage, transportation, technologies, well-structured markets and government policies, says food scientist and executive Jane Karuku, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

One in four people in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from chronic hunger. For Africa to feed itself and perhaps the world one day requires collaboration and partnerships throughout the value chain, says Karuku. AGRA currently works in 18 sub-Saharan countries. By 2020, its goals are to reduce food insecurity by 50 percent in at least 20 countries, double the incomes of 20 million smallholder farmer families, and put 15 countries on track to attain and sustain a Green Revolution.

Karuku recently talked with FutureFood 2050 about her role at AGRA and how the organization is working toward its goals.

Smallholder farmers buy at retail [prices] and sell at wholesale. Organized farmer groups can negotiate the best prices for their inputs [raw materials] and their outputs [crops].”
— Jane Karuku

FutureFood 2050: How does your education and background, which includes food science and technology, a degree in marketing as well as work in industry, influence the work of AGRA?

Karuku: I believe that my training and previous work experience have all exposed me to diverse sectors, all in one way or another related to agriculture development, food security and information technology. As you are aware, there is a current convergence of these and other related sectors for economic development and poverty reduction. This background, combined with knowledge garnered in leading various organizations, comes to bear in my role as president of AGRA.

I also bring a deep understanding of how supply chains function. Whether it is the supply chain of a big company or a little private sector company, as a supplier you can improve your own quality, quantity, standards and sustainability of your inputs. I also understand what the industry requires of these players [suppliers] and what they need to do to build their capacity, profitability and sustainability, which leads to building very good partnerships between industry and these private sector players.

Smallholder farmers have been supplying big multinationals for years. What we do is to inform smallholder farmers about the standards that are required to meet the needs of industry, how to create a contract and deliver on the contract, and getting a good price for their goods, such as produce, sorghum, maize, beets, bananas and beans. We help farmer groups build their own organizations and their own capabilities in working with big companies. We also bring the same standards to working with very small companies, such as a small broker.

FutureFood 2050: What are you currently working on at AGRA?

Karuku: At AGRA we work across the whole value chain of staples. We are working on how to grow the sustainability of the value chain. We started from farmers’ adoption of new technology and improved productivity to how to structure markets to sustain the whole cycle.

We’re working on a post-harvest study to ensure that farmers’ productivity is not getting lost through post-harvest losses, which is very high right now. We want to get the real data … what’s the real value we’re losing through post-harvest? There’s an argument that we lose up to $3 billion a year in terms of post-harvest losses. But is that number true? And if it’s true, what are interventions we could do to try and reduce this post-harvest loss? Because even a 10 percent or 20 percent decrease of the current value right now would actually go a long way toward food security.

The study involves 11 countries across 11 value chains. It has been going on for six months and should be complete in [August 2014]. Some preliminary findings are confirming what we already knew. Post-harvest losses are huge, and it happens at different points in the value chain from the farm, harvesting, storage, transport and in the marketplace. We want to share the results of the study with the practitioners across the value chain and partners—governments, donors, donor development partners, private practitioners, policy makers—whoever is a stakeholder in that part of the chain and guide them in making better decisions as they move on with their work. It’s all about food security.

FutureFood 2050: What are some of the projects that you’re planning or hoping to work on in the next few years?

Karuku: We are starting to see on a small scale the value addition by farmers. For example, cassava is expanding into new markets such as beer. So the next work is going to be how to scale that up so it can be bigger and in more geographical places. We need to replicate those models of success on a larger scale.

Nigeria imports more than $5 billion worth of wheat annually. Work is being done to substitute cassava for wheat in the production of bread. This will reduce imports and help the country create more markets for a local crop.

FutureFood 2050: The Green Revolution focused on about four or five crops. There has been a lot of talk recently about looking at indigenous crops for various reasons, such as climate change. Which crops are part of AGRA’s Green Revolution?

Karuku: AGRA has always worked on a uniquely African Green Revolution. We work on many staples from ground nuts, beans and millet to sorghum, maize and cassava because Africa is a very vast continent with many different agro-ecological zones. So we actually work on crops that are indigenous and people already eat. That’s why it is unique. We are trying to make sure that the diversity of these crops withstands the challenges we are seeing with weather or climate change, and also from a value system where people have always eaten them because of their nutrition. So we work on a whole range of crops.

FutureFood 2050: How will science and technology impact your work going forward?

Karuku: I would like to see food scientists work on innovation in terms of value addition and find alternative uses of these crops. We’re starting to see crop productivity gains, but the productivity gains will need to be managed better in terms of building better structured markets that ensure we reduce post-harvest losses and create alternative uses of these crops. Innovation is very important.

Another area is nutrition. Food scientists can help increase the nutritional value of food through fortification, food preservation and other value addition processes that improve availability and wholesomeness.

FutureFood 2050: What are some of the big misconceptions people have about African agriculture, and how does approaching it from an R&D perspective change the possibilities?

Karuku: Africans are saying, “Invest with us.” They are not asking for a handout. It’s about investing in somebody, in some woman, in some farmer to break the cycle of poverty. Once the value chain becomes profitable, then it’s automatically sustainable.

FutureFood 2050: With AGRA’s focus on collaboration and partnership, can you tell us about the significance of developing solutions by Africans for Africans?

Karuku: Africans are starting to drive ownership, which speeds the adoption of ideas. If it’s coming from somewhere else, maybe the adoption could be slower. But when you invest in Africa and an African comes up with a solution, it’s easier for it to be adopted inside Africa.

For example, let’s look at women farmers. We help farmers form groups because farmers learn better from each other than from you and me. So when you have a platform of a farmer group and you train and support them, whether it’s business organization, information sharing or using a mobile phone in their work, this information can be passed along quickly and reliably. Farmers trust the information more coming from other farmers.

The challenge is to form strong institutions at local levels where we can train farmers to be better leaders and give them a platform on how to exchange knowledge. Smallholder farmers buy at retail [prices] and sell at wholesale. Organized farmer groups can negotiate the best prices for their inputs [raw materials] and their outputs [crops].

Bob Swientek

Bob Swientek is Editor-in-Chief of Food Technology magazine, the monthly flagship publication of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT). During his 30-plus years in food and consumer packaged goods business-to-business publishing, he has written articles on many aspects of the food industry from technology, processing and packaging to research, product development and marketing.

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