Africa's Food Crisis Opportunity

By Josh Ruxin
Thursday, July 3, 2008

KIGALI, Rwanda -- Every time Americans buy groceries, we feel the crisis in food prices. But while inflation presents discomfort in the United States, it is causing dire hardship elsewhere. In many of the world's poorest communities, food prices have become an obstacle to survival. Yet rapidly rising prices -- which are hurting the 73 million people fed each day by the World Food Program and the hundreds of millions who work for low wages in cities -- may also create an opportunity: the first chance in years for the world's poorest farmers to climb out of poverty.

More than a billion people around the world eke out an existence on less than a dollar per day. Most people here in Rwanda fall into that category. But since they rely on themselves for food production and are too poor to afford fertilizer, tractors or advanced seeds, they are insulated from price spikes. For years, working as a farmhand in Rwanda meant slow starvation. Yet with basic food items now priced too high for the average person to afford, local production of food is more attractive, meaning that farmworkers are better able to maintain a living wage.

Since 1850, commodity prices have declined steadily. Coffee, maize and even oil have all become cheaper -- until recently. The surge in fuel prices has, ironically, driven up demand for corn-based ethanol. And, while biofuels won't lessen the need for crude oil, at least not yet, the resulting corn shortage has forced food prices higher.

In Africa, the crisis is imparting sharp lessons. Freer, more democratic nations with better economic policies appear more immune to the spike in food prices. Meanwhile, less-open countries have employed anachronistic policies of subsidies and tariffs, exacerbating market fluctuations. It's no coincidence that Nigeria and Ethiopia have experienced rioting while Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania have been relatively calm.

Asian countries that are becoming industrial economies are in the toughest spot: Low-wage factory workers' situations are less elastic, leaving those workers more hard-pressed when the prices of common household goods rise. But subsistence-level farmers who are not reliant on expensive fertilizer or oil-fueled machinery can sell their excess produce at higher prices, which are still less than prices for food that might be trucked or flown in. The resulting boomlet benefits sub-Saharan Africa's small farmers, who cultivate, on average, less than 2 1/2 acres and who can, with appropriate assistance, expand their production to meet increasing demand. It's also possible that a local agricultural renaissance may attract some of the world's urban poor back to the countryside to cultivate fallow land and earn decent wages.

A report released in April by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization confirmed that farmers worldwide would benefit from reducing their dependency on fossil fuels and adopting practices that help protect their environments. This means reducing the amount of fossil fuel used for cultivation, as well as transported fertilizers and pesticides, in favor of locally available resources. To be sure, inputs such as fertilizer can tremendously boost poor farmers' productivity and earnings in the short term. A colleague from Nigeria wrote to me this spring saying that while the cost of fertilizer had increased by 50 percent, the selling price of corn was up by 100 percent. In other words, those productive small farmers who had had access to the increased capital required to obtain fertilizer had doubled their income in a year. Other key areas of productivity investment for poor farmers in which donor governments would do well to invest include advanced seeds, technical assistance for terracing and irrigation, and diversification into higher-value crops that are less likely to be influenced by fluctuations in international commodities markets.

It has taken Americans decades to warm to the common sense of producing and consuming locally. Fortunately, the trend may catch on more quickly in the world's poorest countries. Many have argued for an African "green revolution": better farming practices and greater productivity through larger investment in smallholder farms. The timing could scarcely be better for following up on these opportunities. We should also resist the temptation to apply traditional fire-control responses to counter rising food prices, responses such as expanding subsidies or protecting markets. Investing in the poor today may enable many to make the transition out of poverty that has been so elusive for decades. If smallholder farmers can increase their income in real terms for the first time in 50 years, aided by improvements in health and education, they may manage to claw their way out of poverty, as many in Southeast Asia have done.

In the coming months, many will need food relief, but many more will benefit from investments in farm cooperatives and small farms. These investments will help to maintain progress, support stability, and, most important, help the world's poor feed themselves and their neighbors.

The writer, an assistant professor of public health at Columbia University, is founder and director of the Rwanda-based Access Project, which helps African countries develop and implement public health programs. He also directs the Millennium Villages project in Rwanda.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company