– “My key message is really simple,” says Dr Simeon Ehui, the newly-appointed Director General of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which works with partners across sub-Saharan Africa to tackle hunger, poverty and natural resource degradation.
“The clock is ticking,” Ehui tells IPS in an interview from Washington DC on his last day at the World Bank, urging Africa’s leaders to recognise the “absolute, paramount” importance of increasing funding for agriculture.
Dr Ehui, who also becomes Regional Director for Continental Africa, CGIAR, a global network of food security research organisations, says Africa’s food security is worsening. He lists the challenges: the climate crisis and extreme weather events that are presently causing floods in the west and central Africa and drought in the east; relatively high population growth; migration to urban areas; and specifically, the Ukraine-Russia war that triggered soaring prices of chemical fertilisers and grain.
As the African Development Bank recently noted, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine resulted in fertiliser prices rising two to three times over 2020 levels, creating serious supply gaps across the continent and driving food inflation. In sub-Saharan Africa, households spend up to 40% of their budget on food, compared to 17% in developed economies. Africa, the bank says, is over-reliant on food staples and agricultural inputs, importing over 100 million tonnes of cereals a year.
Much of that food deficit and accompanying poverty is concentrated in several African states, led by Nigeria (where IITA is based in Ibadan), which is projected to overtake the US as the world’s third most populous country by 2050 with some 400 million people.
“My vision is thriving agricultural food systems in Africa,” says Dr Ehui, and, specifically for IITA and CGIAR, this means fostering the conditions to sustain centres of research excellence where scientists will be excited to work, with transparency of management and gender equality.
“We have to be able to respond quickly … We need to accelerate our research to respond to the needs of the people,” he adds.
While the global climate crisis is having a huge impact on food security, Dr Ehui agrees that political issues cannot be set aside. “We can’t divorce policy issues from the bigger agenda [climate change]. The two go together,” he says, singling out land tenure, land grabbing, and obstacles to women having access to land.
IITA will provide analysis and options for policy-makers to improve access to land and boost investments in agriculture.
Asked whether he is concerned that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation plays an overly dominant role in providing over half of IITA’s funding of “research and delivery” projects, Dr Ehui begins by expressing his appreciation of the foundation’s support, particularly in the development of Aflasafe to combat dangerous aflatoxin in maize, groundnuts and other crops. However, the new director general also says he wants to “diversify sources of funding and scale-up research”.
He also rejects criticism from some quarters of the “failure” of Africa’s Green Revolution as embraced by Bill Gates, saying India’s one-crop model of the “green revolution” and a lack of care for the environment had not been applicable to Africa and its own complex systems.
IITA and CGIAR are responding to the needs of smallholder farmers in Africa, Dr Ehui says, and that means agriculture that is sustainable and regenerative.
“The focus on regenerative agriculture reflects the importance of natural resource management and local eco-systems,” says Dr Ehui, a national of Cote d’Ivoire and the United States who worked for 15 years at CGIAR, managing multi-agricultural research development programs in Africa and Asia, and whose most recent post was World Bank Regional Director for Sustainable Development for West and Central Africa.
Asked if there was a genuine shift towards regenerative and sustainable practices for Africa, Dr Ehui said CGIAR had long been focusing on using local technologies for enhancing food security, for example, reducing reliance on chemical fertilisers for those who could not afford it and using locally available inputs instead. “When I was a young scientist, we were working on these technologies,” he notes.
The Dakar 2 summit on food security last January recognised how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had exposed Africa’s over-reliance on imports of chemical fertilisers. “We have the resources to make it locally,” says Dr Ehui, who chaired a summit session.
At the summit, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, then head of the African Union, declared that “Africa must learn to feed itself” and that at least 10 percent of national budgets should be spent on agriculture.
Dr Ehui says it has been shown that every dollar spent on agricultural research brings a return of 10 dollars and that such investment will go a long way to help improve the socio-economic conditions of the people. Meeting basic needs will also help stem migration across the Mediterranean to Europe, he says.
Despite the challenges, agriculture is growing in much of sub-Saharan Africa and remains the mainstay of most African economies and a major employer. With 65% of the world’s remaining arable land in Africa and with a youthful and dynamic population, the African Development Bank believes Africa is capable of feeding itself as the world approaches a total population of nine billion people by 2050.
But have the pleas heard at the Dakar summit been heeded? “There has been a shift,” Dr Ehui replies. Funding for agriculture is still “below optimum”, but “a few countries” have responded, and he feels confident that, with work, numbers will soon increase.