“This sleeping giant needs to wake up,” the Bank’s Vice-President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development, Jennifer Blanke, told an audience at a 2018 World Food Prize side event in Des Moines, Iowa last week. Blanke described Africa’s nearly 400 million hectares of Savannah zones as “the world’s largest agricultural frontier,” and if a small fraction of that cultivatable land – some 16 million hectares - is transformed, it could well set Africa up to decrease dependence on food imports, feed itself and contribute to feeding the world.
Africa is host to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, but currently spends an estimated US$35 billion per year on importing food. This figure is projected to shoot up to US$110 billion by 2025. Africa is importing what it should actually be producing: 22 million metric tons of maize, two million metric tons of soybean, one million metric tons of broiler meat and 10 million metric tons of milk product each year. This situation is made worse when African countries export raw goods outside the continent to be processed into consumer products imported back into Africa for purchase. In essence, Africa is exporting jobs outside the continent, and contributing to Africa’s poverty challenges.
The African Development Bank has determined that the African Savannah can support the production of maize, soybean, and livestock, and transform the continent into a net exporter of these commodities. Only ten percent of the African Savannah is under cultivation – better utilized, small sections of Africa’s grasslands could provide direct jobs for tens of millions of young people and indirect jobs for many more.
Blanke, who spoke on behalf of African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina, noted that all of Africa’s Savannah is more than twice as large as Brazil’s “Cerrados” that launched that country’s farming economy success. She said transforming a small part of Africa’s mixed woodland grasslands, in a smart and sustainable way, can produce enough to supply all the continent’s maize, soybean, and livestock requirements.
Brazil transformed its tropical Cerrados into a US$54 billion food industry within two decades through skillful development of production technologies for new crop and livestock varieties; innovative soil and crop management programs adapted to the tropics; wide-scale dissemination of new agricultural technologies; low interest loans, and ambitious rural development programs.
The Bank’s Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation for the Savannahs (TAAT-S) initiative seeks to transform 16 million Ha out of Africa’s 400 million Ha of Savannah into an agribusiness hive for the production of maize, soybean, and livestock. That is just about four percent of the continent’s mixed woodland and grassland areas. If African countries can harness the available technologies with the right policies, they will rapidly raise agricultural productivity and incomes for farmers, as well as assure lower food prices for consumers.
Vice President Blanke led a Bank delegation selling the merits of its TAAT-S initiative at the World Food Prize gathering. The Bank’s TAAT-S session discussed training, innovation, entrepreneurship, and policy support for transformation of African Savannahs.
To ensure effective implementation, the Bank has looked to Brazil’s agri-business success story to engage with organizations with proven track record in tropical and conservation agriculture. These include the Brazilian Research Corporation and the Agricultural Corporation of Brazil, the Argentine Association of Zero-tillage, and the Argentine Agricultural Research Institute – all part of a systematic effort at technology introduction and adaptation.
TAAT-S was launched in October 2017 in Ghana and has since been operating in Zambia, Guinea and Gabon. The Bank expects to launch TAAT-S in Uganda, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and Mozambique next year.
When TAAT-S is fully implemented, Africa can expect to double its maize production from a current 50 million metric tons per annum to 100 million metric tons, to triple soybean production from less than three million metric tons to nine million metric tons, and to double livestock production from 8.5 million metric tons to 16 million metric tons by 2025.
The TAAT-S session was part of Borlaug Dialogue International Symposium, held in conjunction with the World Food Prize Laureate Ceremony. The US$250,000 World Food Prize recognizes accomplishments of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. African Development Bank President Adesina is the 2017 World Food Prize laureate.