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Eradicating Poverty in Africa – by Amina J Mohammed

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Sunday, May 8th, 2016
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There is an old Nigerian proverb that says “fine words do not produce food”. So I will keep my words as simple and clear as possible.

Africa is facing a harsh reality that is exacerbated by climate change, poverty and conflict. Data shows that one in every two people on the continent lives in extreme poverty.

In 15 years, most of the world’s poor will reside here in Africa. Sadly as I write, about 240 million people go to bed hungry every night (PDF) while malnutrition kills more than 50 percent of the African children who die before they reach the age of five (PDF). We cannot continue to let this happen.

Waste and inefficiency

These stark statistics are hard to grapple with. Imagine for a moment the pain of a mother who cannot feed her newborn daughter with the proper food she needs to live beyond the age of five.

Imagine the mother who toils all day in the field but still goes to bed with a stomach aching from hunger because she cannot afford enough food to feed her family.

And now picture this: Millions of perfectly good, nutritious tomatoes rotting in the hot Nigerian sun. While 13 million Nigerians suffer from hunger and more than one million children suffer from malnutrition, the country wastes more than 50 percent of its annual tomato harvest (PDF).

There is another West African proverb: “It is a fool whose tomatoes are sold to him.” Unfortunately this is the reality in Nigeria and most part of our continent. But the true fool is the man who grows enough tomatoes to feed himself only to throw them away and buy someone else’s tomatoes.

This is not just a Nigerian problem. It is an African problem. Sub-Saharan Africa spends $35bn on importing food each year (PDF) and the region loses a further $48bn from food that is wasted post-harvest because of poor roads, inadequate storage and poor access to markets (PDF).

These are enormous resources that – when added to the $68bn the continent loses each year due to depleted soils and degraded land – could be ploughed back into African economies to drive the transformation that the continent so badly needs.

The resources saved could be used to empower more women, end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition, combat climate change, create jobs and promote sustainable agriculture, leading to the attainment of the global goals, 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Solution is not far

If these numbers are alarming, then they should also give us hope for as Africa’s transformation lies in the continent’s rich soil. Simply raising crop yields by 10 percent reduces poverty by about seven percent.

Today, we already have the knowledge to do this. Simply raising agricultural productivity is not enough. If we want to achieve food security we must ensure that we look after the vital ecosystems that allow us to produce our food. More research will be conducted to find innovative solutions to these challenges.

This means looking after the bees and insect pollinators that are necessary for the growth of 75 percent of all our crops (PDF). It means looking after our soils and our water sources. And it means sharing the knowledge and the technology that allows us to do all of these things.

If we can do this – if we can optimise food production by embracing an ecosystem-based adaptation approach to agriculture – we can boost yields by up to 128 percent.

What is even better about this approach is that it does not require enormous resources. There is an ancient farming technique in West Africa called “zai”. This simple technology – a circular depression is dug into dry soil and used to grow seedlings – can turn crusted land into nurseries by improving water retention. If properly executed, zai can increase yields by up to 500 percent in some of the trickiest terrains on Earth.

We must also focus our efforts on improving every part of the food chain. We will have to improve our transport links and storage facilities so that we don’t waste so much food after it is harvested.

Opportunities ahead

The benefits of an ecosystem-based adaptation approach to agriculture are clear. Investing in ecosystem-based, adaptation-driven agriculture and its linkages to sustainable commercial value chains could boost farmers’ incomes and create up to 17 million jobs while catalysing an agricultural sector that is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2030 (PDF).

The World Economic Forum Grow Africa Initiative provides a platform for engaging African business and entrepreneurs. This collaboration emphasises the importance of green jobs for business.

By prioritising healthy ecosystems with this type of agriculture, we can also help to combat climate change, reverse environmental degradation, which is costing the continent up to $68bn annually, fight desertification and stop biodiversity loss.

This is why the creation of the Africa Ecosystems Based Adaptation for Food Security Assembly (EBAFOSA), is necessary.

The assembly serves as the continental policy platform to foster and enhance access to renewable energy that can power agro-processing, and boosts access to markets and nurture partnerships through branch formation in each African country.

The launch of EBAFOSA branches across the continent, including one in Nigeria last month, is a step in the right direction.

In the coming weeks, 193 countries will meet in Nairobi for the United Nations Environment Assembly – the world’s parliament on the environment.

It is vital that the international community uses this opportunity to recognise that healthy ecosystems underpin human health, wellbeing, livelihoods, jobs and sustainable growth.

As the continent continues to battle with climate change, we can no longer afford to play the proverbial fool for we already know that the continent’s transformation lies in the richness of the African soil.

And we already know how to harness this vast potential. So the time has come for us to put aside our fine words, pick up our tools and start to sow the seeds of the future we so desperately want.

Amina J Mohammed is the Minister of Environment of Nigeria under President Muhammadu Buhari.

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