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The AGRF’s call for food systems action, action, action

Recently I joined nearly 6500(!) deeply engaged colleagues at the African Green Revolution Forum AGRF 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda to lay my ear to the ground. What common priorities did I hear, what concerns and what calls to action? Here are the themes that caught my attention.

A panel session engages delegates at the African Green Revolution Forum AGRF 2022 in Kigali, Rwanda.

Think food systems, and act to change them

Food systems were the core perspective of all discussions and propositions, and there was a recurrent call to act now to transform them. This systems perspective clearly continues from the UN Food Systems Summit last year and reflects the widespread recognition of the need to deal with complex issues in an integrated manner, and not hope that the sum of individual actions will add up to systems change.

Challenges are inter-connected, and so must be the solutions. There was much talk of compound, complex, crises such as CCC (climate, conflict, covid) and FFF (food, fuel, fertilizers). Some intriguing figures: across Africa fertilizer use is less than 10% of that in China, which has a major negative impact on yields; Africa contributes less than 4% of greenhouse gases, yet is the most impacted continent in terms of climate change; only 4% of agricultural land in Africa is irrigated, while 40% is readily achievable. Resilience to food system shocks was therefore high on the agenda, as well as recognition there are major steps that can be taken if these become policy and investment priorities. This systems thinking also meant that nutrition security was high on the agenda, as well as making sure food systems strengthen, rather than erode, the eco-systems they depend on as part of necessary resilience. My friend Alex Rees covers this well.

Farmers at the heart

In every session I heard the call to make systems change farmer-centered. Many agreed that this is where action is needed. Only a few conversations, though, touched on the difference between farmers: those who do it mainly to feed their families and to create a social safety net versus (semi-)commercial, larger-scale farmers. The strong representation of big agribusiness at the AGRF pushed the attention to commercial farming. Even where there were a number of farmer groups in panels they were certainly not centre stage. This ignored the need to prioritise very different approaches to effectively supporting small-scale farmers vs commercial farmers. IFAD’s 2021 Rural Development Report spells out how rural people’s livelihoods now combine farming with other sources of income to meet their needs. Systemic change will be needed to reshape the deeper structural economic, political and cultural factors that inhibit equitable livelihoods for rural people, and that inhibit the creation of a healthy and sustainable food system.

The AGRF 2022 Summit marks a turning point for African agriculture and food systems.

Taking things forward: leadership, research, information, investment,

Four things kept recurring in the many calls to action.

  • Leadership: There is a need for good leadership to take action-oriented, systems-thinking agendas forward. This involves the need to find and invest in the capacities of the right kind of leaders.
  • Research: The need for science-based action plans was emphasised by all, from President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to multiple session contributors.
  • Information: Stakeholders need useful information, not just data. Data needs to be analysed, made understandable and relevant. This is what will inform and support necessary decision-making by leaders.
  • Investment and trade: The opening keynote of the AGRF pointed to the massive underinvestment in agriculture in Africa. Across the continent, the sector generates 16% of gross value addition and nearly 50% of employment, yet it receives less than 5% of investments. Later sessions pointed to proven 10-fold returns on any investment in the sector in terms of development goals. Even greater opportunities were seen if better use is made of the multiple regional and continental free trade agreements.

Shifting relationships

A final striking point for me was the particular interest in what Africa can learn from and work on with countries in Latin America and Asia, particularly China. The recent Africa- Americas Ministerial Summit on cooperation to country global food security threats was the first of its kind and was heavily referenced at the AGRF. The tone in the room was that this cooperation had enormous potential value and would certainly shift relationships with Europe and the US. Bring in the enormous demand from Asia for Africa’s surpluses and it was clear to me that relationships in global food systems are set to shift significantly.

I left with the confidence that the African Food Fellowship is meeting a real need to connect, support, and highlight leaders who will act, act, act to shift their food systems. And that Wageningen University & Research can continue to be welcome guests across Africa if we listen well and share openly.