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Countries such as China and Brazil are widely recognised as agricultural powerhouses today, but it hasn’t always been so. Decades of investment in agricultural research and development paved the way for their increased productivity. That investment has increased the quantity and quality of outputs, leading to higher incomes, greater food security, and economic growth and poverty reduction.

Where is Africa in this picture? Pillar 4 of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) – endorsed at Maputo in 2003 – put agricultural R&D back on the political and donor agenda, with its commitment to ‘improving agriculture research, technology dissemination and adoption’. But for much of the continent, actual investment is still lagging.

Last year, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released research showing that although agricultural R&D public spending in Africa did increase between 2000 and 2011, it was driven mainly by Nigeria and Uganda. In 2011, according to IFPRI, Africa invested just 0.51 percent of agricultural output in R&D, only half of the 1% target set by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the United Nations (UN).

Representatives from the public and private sector came together at a panel discussion at the Grow Africa Investment Forum (GAIF) in Cape Town on 3 June to discuss not just the importance of increasing funding for research, but how exactly such funding can be made to translate into large-scale adoption in the field and, ultimately, increased productivity.

Leveraging philanthropic funding to advance the national research agenda

For Haddis Tadesse, Ethiopia Country Representative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, lack of investment is particularly evident in the public research sector.

“I’ve heard it said that if a plant breeder from 1965 were to walk into a national breeding facility today, they would still recognise everything there,” he said. “Whereas if they walked into a private seed breeding facility, there is very little that person would recognise. If true, that is very concerning.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has put $870m into agricultural research since it launched its donor programme in this area in 2006, said Tadesse, and the big advantage of philanthropy is that it can invest in riskier ventures than the private or public sector.

“Our role is to make bets on promising solutions that are difficult for governments or the private sector to take on, because we can take a much longer outlook,” he said. “We can take risks that others may not be able to.”

But philanthropy is most effective when it can work in partnership with government and the private sector, injecting scale into national efforts. That’s why public sector investment remains so important, according to Lateef Sanni, Dean of the College of Food Sciences and Human Ecology at the Federal University of Agriculture (UNAAB) in Nigeria.

Sanni pointed to the way the Gates Foundation has, since 2008, supported the Cassava: Adding Value for Africa (C:AVA) programme, which operates in Nigeria, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania. Nigeria had already invested heavily in developing improved varieties of cassava as well as a value chain, he said, and its track record provided the entry point for donors looking to invest in something with real potential.

“Funding to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria helped make Nigeria the largest producer of cassava in the world. Between 1999 and 2008, production increased from 34m to 45m metric tonnes. And Gates were looking for success stories that needed scaling up, which is why in 2013, for example, we saw the introduction of an efficient flash drying system from Nigeria to Universal Industry in Malawi after concerted efforts by the C:AVA project led by the Natural Resources Institute, Greenwich University, Chatham, Kent, UK, Nobextech, Lagos and UNAAB team.”

Addressing the skills gap

The introduction of technology like that is a crucial step, but the skills gap in operating such technology is also a vulnerability of Africa, said Eliana Zamprogna, Sustainability Officer at Bühler.

“We hear about financing being a bottleneck, or the bureaucracy of certification,” she said. “But the critical bottleneck in our view is the lack of local skills to properly operate technology and maximize its profitability, quickly coping with changes in the raw material from agriculture and in the quality requirements for the finished products. There is not enough access to technical education of high quality, and if this issue is not tackled, there will remain a big question mark over what the continent can really achieve from investment in technology.”

Bühler has opened the first African Milling School in Nairobi for that reason, to produce skilled operators for wheat, maize and sorghum processing plants. The training centre is now in operation and the first courses fully booked. Most of the trainees come from family-owned and medium-size enterprises, which have immediately understood the importance of skilled, loyal labour for their long term, profitable growth. The challenge is now to convince large corporations that it is worth investing in training.

“There’s often an impression that cheap labour is sufficient, but this is the short-term, myopic view of the past,” she said. “Also the large market players will soon understand that investing in trained talented operators is a fundamental success factor for them.” 

Ensuring technology transfer at scale to smallholder farmers

Proper know-how and training is fundamental for farmers as well. Tony Kalm, director of One Acre Fund, reminded the audience that farmers make up 70% of the world’s poor. Most of them live in remote areas, without access to basic agricultural tools and training. One Acre Fund has designed a a complete set of services, offered on credit,  to enable farmers to significantly increase productivity.  

“We listen to our farmers, and dignify them as customers.  We measure success in our ability to make farmers more prosperous. Every year, we rigorously measure our results against a control group in every country of operation. On average, farmers working with One Acre Fund increase their incomes by at least 50%, and realize more than a 100% return on their investment,” says Kalm.

With the improved harvests, farmers are able to end hunger in their families, and invest profits from surplus sales into education for their children, new businesses, and other productive assets.”

Is there a single key way of leveraging the power of agricultural research and technology? Funding is clearly important, but extension services, infrastructure, gender equity and market linkages all need to be there to translate research into outcomes. It’s often said that there’s no ‘silver bullet’ for these things, but strong partnerships might come close.

“The best partnerships we’ve seen are when you combine the capabilities of national research institutions with farmers, and then connect that output with markets,” said Tadesse. “It’s so important to get these partnerships right, because agricultural research plays a key role not just in productivity, but in driving economic growth for Africa as a whole.”