Building African agriculture at the G8

May 25, 2012

The face of human hunger sparks strong emotions. Often they are negative— sometimes despair at the state of our fellow man, other times rage strong enough to topple governments—but at the recent G8 Summit on African food security, there was only enthusiasm and passion.

Friday, May 18 saw the G8 Summit on Food Security at Camp David. The focus was on African agriculture, and a shared commitment to the “New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition” and the “Grow Africa Partnership.”

Political leaders from numerous African nations joined with African business, agricultural and social leaders, U.S. officials and business representatives, and international leaders from Europe to discuss the issues facing African agriculture and what the future holds for Africa and the world.

Much time and discussion were dedicated to the growing nature of African agriculture, both for its own people and for investment opportunities. Despite the excitement, however, caution over inefficient production practices was raised in the face of the growing food needs of Africa and the world.

Investing in African agriculture

The primary focus, aside from the titular one, was the growing opportunity in African agriculture, particularly for private investment.

A White House press briefing held just prior to the symposium contained a plethora of numbers and data later brought up throughout the discussions.

“But just by way of context, this past decade, Africa’s economic output has surged,” said Mike Froman with International Economic Affairs. “And the [International Monetary Fund] projects nearly 6 percent growth for the continent of Africa this year. And while it’s still a poor continent, it’s one with a growing middle class and with real income per head growing at 3 percent a year—twice the global rate.”

Froman’s list of economic statistics about Africa went on to include international trade up 200 percent since 2000, foreign investment “soaring tenfold,” inflation dropping from 22 percent in the 1990s to 8 percent in this past decade, and foreign debt and budget deficits declining by 25 and 66 percent, respectively.

One of the symposium’s morning panels addressed the “New Alliance” which focused on the issue of changing the developmental landscape of agriculture in several African countries. Topics of local relationships between private companies and small-holder farmers and investments in infrastructure were stressed.

“The most important actor is the small farmer, which is 70 percent of the population,” said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. “There is room for the private sector to help the smallscale farmer.”

DuPont president Ellen Kullman agreed, particularly for the importance of local focus on individual farmers.

“Food security answers must be local. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work for the small farmer, it doesn’t work.”

Particular attention was directed throughout the symposium not only on the small-holder farmer, but specifically on the female farmers of Africa who reportedly make up the overwhelming majority of new farmers and businesspeople.

Though the symposium’s discussions had a distinctly optimistic and altruistic air, many of the African leaders were keen to keep a proper context.

“It’s not philanthropy. It’s business,” said Jean Ping, chairperson of the African Union Commission. “We are moving fast and that is what the investor wants to see. We are ready for investments. If you see something missing, tell us!” Josette Sheeran, vicechair of the World Economic Forum’s managing board, who hosted the afternoon session “Business Unusual,” further emphasized the need for a business rather than philanthropic mindset. She spoke of international intervention in Africa as a hand out in the past, which then involved to a hand up. Now, however, she said the relationship must be seen as the handshake, a symbol of business relationships among peers.

“The time has come for the African farmer. The world cannot feed itself without the help of the African farmer.”

Though the call for investment and partnering with the private sector was largely directed at large companies, a number of hands-on examples of small-scale investment possibilities were brought up. A primary example is individual-to-individual “microloans.”

Microloans are precisely what their name implies. Relatively small amounts of money by Western standards go a long way to starting up business and farming opportunities for people in developing countries. Though results vary by microloan organizers, many boast very high repayment rates on their microloans.

Many organizations exist to facilitate microloans and they frequently focus on women. Global Giving and The Hunger Project—respectively rated 59 and 55 out of 70 by the Charity Navigator—are examples of organizers of microloans to African female farmers and businesswomen.

Efficiency a must in solving hunger

Among the speakers in the “Agricultural Innovation: Getting to Scale” session at the symposium was Jeff Simmons, senior vice president of Eli Lilly and Company, and president of Elanco Animal Health, an Eli Lilly subsidiary. During the session, he spoke eloquently, if in veiled and politically tactful terms, of the dangers of niche production practices being forced upon the global market place.

Simmons started off by placing animal agriculture in the context of developing nations’ food security.

“Fifty percent of protein consumption by most developing countries comes in that source [meat, milk and eggs]. And there’s 3 billion of the 7 billion people [in the world] working to get off that plant and rice diet and bring in some animal-based protein for the first time.”

This is not a new message. Countless sources, from economists to sociologists and beyond, have advised that growing individual wealth in developing nations leads to shifts in diets to include more protein.

Simmons talked at length about the specific value of eggs in the diets of those in developing countries, particularly in the context of the nutrition of children.

“[Eggs] are one of the most desired proteins right now. Getting an egg in those first 1,000 days—once a day or every other day—for a child. What that does for brain development is significant. [The majority of the world] wants eggs maybe more than a chicken breast.”

Simmons then launched into a review of some statistics of great concern. Reportedly, the current eggs per person per year stands at 174. However, according to Simmons, an additional 100 eggs per person per year will need to be produced by 2045.

“And then you unravel it to what scared us if you looked a little further; we’re losing an egg per hen per day right now. Why? Lack of innovation.

“…The other thing is when you unravel it and look at it, it is the way animals are raised. There may be that 2 percent who have the money and maybe want them raised a different way and they are suddenly finding they are losing three to four eggs per hen per year. So people who can’t even have eggs themselves are exporting to those countries.”

Simmons used the example of the current egg shortage in Brittan and other parts of Europe. Though he did not directly mention it, the recent egg shortage there has largely been attributed to the recent shift in egg production regulations which all but ban modern intensive systems. He cited the fact Mexico has been exporting eggs to Europe and the UK, suggesting it is to the detriment of Mexican citizens where food security can be a problem.

He spoke passionately, if succinctly on the need to reverse the trend of decreasing egg production per hen. “That must change. That trend must be turned ’round.”

Among his three-pronged vision of how to fix the issue, Simmons alluded to the danger of allowing production practices to be controlled by special interests.

“It’s going to take policy. And it’s going to take understanding some simple realities. We need that minority that can afford it just to be careful not to make the choice for the majority.”

In the context of the summit—dealing with hunger in developing nations—Simmons’ closing comments were easily an indictment against the humanitarian fallout of misplaced priorities.

The complete video coverage of the summit’s sessions can be found on the Chicago Council’s livestream site at council. Simmons’ discussion highlighted above can be found in the “Symposium Afternoon Session” video at timestamp 2:04:45. Other topics reported here are included in all videos of the event. A fast internet connection is recommended for unhindered viewing of videos. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor