May 17, 2012

OVER THE PAST decade, the world has made great strides in helping people lift themselves out of extreme poverty. But more than half of sub-Saharan Africa’s 740 million people still subsist on less than $1.25 a day. More than one-fourth suffer from chronic hunger. By 2050, the region’s total population will double. Without increased agricultural productivity, the region’s poverty and malnutrition will not only persist but worsen.

On Friday, in advance of the 2012 Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations at Camp David, President Obama is to announce a joint effort to lift 50 million people in the region out of extreme poverty within 10 years. The innovative strategy behind the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is to foster political reform as a means of encouraging increased private investment in agriculture. The investment is not targeted at large-scale corporate production but aims to enable smaller-scale farmers to increase output, primarily for their own consumption but also for sale.

According to Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), political barriers have doomed past agricultural development strategies in sub-Saharan Africa, the only region in the world to see no substantial agricultural growth in the past 40 years. Excessive government involvement and corruption have dissuaded investors and discouraged local farmers. Government restrictions on seed variety have inhibited local entrepreneurship and lowered sales. A lack of collateral registries has prevented farmers from obtaining loans or insurance.

The new effort is designed to lift those barriers to investment. “African governments are cutting red tape and making pro-market reforms,” Dr. Shah said. The affiliated African countries, a group that now includes Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana but is expected to expand to a majority of the region’s 47 nations, have each committed to 10 to 12 specific political reforms. For example, Tanzania has undertaken an effort to do away with its export ban on agricultural production. Ethiopia has agreed to launch a land-titling process, enabling microfinance by promoting land ownership.

In turn, more than 40 companies have committed to doubling their investment in agricultural development in Africa, with financial contributions of $3.5 billion. For example, Vodafone, the British telecommunications company, will provide technology to allow small-scale farmers to check market conditions and negotiate prices. Tanzania-based Tanseed International will offer farmers greater seed variety and aid them in harvesting more efficiently.

If the initiative meets its target, it will ameliorate hunger in 13 percent of the destitute population of sub-Saharan Africa. It is just one step, and it doesn’t lessen the need for development aid. But lifting barriers to farm productivity could end up helping many more than 50 million. It is a vital goal, and this initiative offers a novel and sensible approach.