By Isaiah Esipisu
Abidjan — "Africa has the resources, skills, and human and land capacity to move from importer to exporter by eating food made in Africa"
In 2008, as food prices rose around the world, riots broke out in West Africa, and Mali's government stepped in.
It quickly launched an initiative to subsidise purchases of good-quality certified rice seed, as well as fertilisers, for farmers, in an effort to cut reliance on rice imports and grow more food of its own.
In just two years, the country was producing enough grain for domestic consumption, and today is a rice exporter, said Bourema Dembele, who until July was director of research at Mali's Institut d'Economie Rurale, a government institution.
"We had no choice other than to develop a policy that would later see our country out of the crisis," said Dembele, now a Mali programme officer for the Alliance for a Green Revolution Africa (AGRA), a nongovernmental organisation.
Such policies need to be replicated around Africa if the continent is to cope with a burgeoning population and climate change while improving food security and economic growth, African experts say.
"Rice is going to be the biggest challenge for Africa because countries highly depend on imports from sources that are totally unsustainable," William Asiko, the executive director of Grow Africa, a non-governmental organisation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to a report released last month at the African Green Revolution Forum, African nations spend $35 billion each year on food imports, a figure expected to rise to $110 billion by 2025 unless the continent can boost harvests.
Changing things "will take commitment of African governments to stimulate and guide the transition," said Agnes Kalibata, AGRA's president,
"If left to the private sector alone, growth in the agrifood system will not be as fast as it could, nor will it benefit as many smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs as it could," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
According to the Africa Agriculture Status Report 2017, if most African governments moved as aggressively as Mali's, the continent could not only feed itself but meet the growing demand from affluent city dwellers for high-value processed foods.
In Mali, production of rice grew from just 900,000 tonnes in 2008 - below the domestic consumption of 1.1 million tonnes - to 2.7 million tonnes in 2016, thanks in part to government subsidies of 35 billion CFA francs ($64 million). Rice production is now double the country's annual consumption.
Overall food production - including cereal crops such as sorghum, millet, groundnuts, cowpeas and maize, as well as rice - also increased over the same period from 3.6 million tonnes to 8.7 million tonnes, making the country largely self-sufficient.
Apart from subsidising seed and other farming needs, Mali's government in 2015 began buying 1,000 new tractors every year to sell to farmers at half price. Farmers are required to make a downpayment of just 20 percent and can take out loans from commercial banks for the remaining sum.
Poorer or very small-scale farmers also are eligible to buy tractors if they group together to cultivate at least 50 hectares (124 acres) of land with the equipment.
To support the effort, Mali's government has allocated at least 15 percent of the national budget to agriculture, surpassing a target of 10 percent agreed to at the 2003 African Union Summit as part of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme.
Dembele's organisation works with research institutions in Mali to produce quality-certified seeds for farmers to meet growing demand for them. Previously, many small-scale farmers planted uncertified seeds in part because certified seeds had to be imported and were too expensive.
Asiko, of Grow Africa, said more African countries need to create initiatives to increase rice production, especially in West Africa, where it is the main staple.
"When we invest in production, we create a market for seed and fertiliser companies which are investment and business opportunities. When we produce in plenty, we create further opportunities for processors, and when we process enough, we further create opportunities for transporters and sellers," he said.
The Africa Agriculture Status Report suggests that more productive farming could be Africa's "quiet revolution", creating jobs and sustainable economic growth that has largely failed to materialise from mineral extraction and increased urbanisation.
"Africa has the latent natural resources, skills, human and land capacity to tip the balance of payments and move from importer to exporter by eating food made in Africa," Kalibata said.
Apart from Mali, African countries that have had significant success moving towards food self-sufficiency include Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burkina Faso, she said.
(Reporting by Isaiah Esipisu; editing by James Baer and Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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