Africa can feed itself but needs technology, roads

A Kenyan-born Harvard professor told leaders from five East African countries on Thursday that the continent can feed itself within a generation if farmers embrace modern technology and governments expand infrastructure and harmonize regional markets.

Calestous Juma says in a new study being presented to leaders of the five-nation East African Community that policies over the last century have favored exporting Africa's raw materials and importing food, but that now Africa should focus on agriculture as an engine for regional trade and prosperity.

"For most people who work in Africa and live in Africa the perception of the continent has always been that it is incapable of feeding itself," Juma said in a phone interview.

"Up until recently the reaction of African leaders to any famine has been to ask for food aid," he said. "The general atmosphere both within Africa and outside is that Africa can't feed itself, and you have institutions that reflect that attitude."

Juma told the presidents of Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania as well as the prime minister of Rwanda and foreign minister of Uganda that they must embrace modern technologies, including biotechnology, and continue to expand basic infrastructure like roads, irrigation canals and energy grids. Farm mechanization and food storage also must be improved, he said.

The U.N. says nearly 1 billion people around the world are undernourished. Nearly 240 million of those people are in Africa. About 70 percent of Congo's population — or 42 million people — are undernourished. In Ethiopia, it's about 41 percent — 31.6 million people, according to the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization.

"Lack of food is not the problem. Enough food is produced in the world today for everyone to be properly nourished and lead a healthy and productive life," a recent report from the FAO said. Hunger "exists because there is not enough investment in the rural sector in many countries to support agricultural development."

One small-scale farmer in Kenya who grows potatoes, carrots and cabbage said the country has the technology to grow more food, but that new ideas and information often don't reach small-scale farmers. The farmer, Grace Kimani, also said farmers aren't making as much money as they should.

"We are lacking access to markets, because in between there are so many middleman, and the farmer is always cheated. The farmer is not getting the right price," said Kimani, who previously worked for the government-funded Kenya Agricultural Research Institute.

Juma, who grew up on the shores of Lake Victoria near the Uganda-Kenya border, said the East African Community needs to align its national and regional policies to maximize the agricultural industry. Roads have typically connected cities and not rural areas, but farmers need strong transport networks to quickly get food products to markets, Juma said.

Reliable electricity in rural areas can help farmers process food after harvesting, whether it's juice or canned goods, Juma said.

Kimani said her farm is next to a major road so she doesn't have transportation problems, but she knows many farmers who live deeper in the country who do. Kimani noted that many crops in Kenya rot because they can't reach markets in time and because farmers lack modern storage facilities.

"There are so many people who go hungry, but sometimes the food is rotting when it rains," she said.