By Elad Levi, Netafim’s Managing Director, Head of Africa
It doesn’t make for sensational headlines, but one problem that impacts hundreds of millions of people, particularly in Africa, has accompanied us through the ages – poverty and hunger. The good news is that a solution is within our reach.
Let’s look at the facts. Some 75 percent of the world’s poorest countries are in Africa, with nearly 415 million people living in extreme poverty across sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 50 percent of the sub-Saharan African population live on $1.90 a day or less, and about one in three people is malnourished. Poverty is the principal cause for hunger in Africa and elsewhere. Moreover, some 70 percent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas and depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihood. Half of the world’s hungry are from farming families. Every 10 seconds, a child dies from a hunger-related disease, and it’s estimated that about half of these children are African.
Western governments and aid organizations typically address this problem by offering charity, grain, fertilizer, farming machinery, and other types of inputs to African governments. Unfortunately, this formula has failed.
As the Africa Managing Director for Netafim – the pioneer of drip irrigation – I and my company can offer a different perspective to combating food scarcity. After penetrating drip technology into Western markets during the first 30 years of our existence, Netafim has been focusing on emerging markets such as India and Africa over the last two decades.
Today’s lose-lose situation
Given my role at Netafim, I’ve had the chance to personally see how smallholders, medium-scale growers, and large corporations operate in Africa. In the best-case scenario, most of the foreign aid that reaches the continent has been used as a temporary, Band-Aid solution that rarely focuses on the root cause of the problem. Africa’s water and agriculture sectors, meanwhile, continue to struggle, and growers are barely surviving as subsistence farmers, let alone thriving as commercial farmers.
This, in turn, has led many potentially productive Africans to emigrate to the West, especially to Europe. There they find work and send most of their earnings back home to support their families. Rather than contributing to their home economies, these emigrants are only making the wealthy countries wealthier.
The West is confronting mass immigration challenges by spending tremendous resources on refugee camp construction and the absorption of these newcomers into society. Those Africans who elect to stay at home, meanwhile, can become potential threats both within and beyond their borders, since hunger and poverty are a recipe for radicalization.
The macro trends emanating from poverty and hunger are not localized, but rather have a domino effect worldwide, particularly in light of ever-increasing globalization. Clearly, this is a lose-lose situation for the West, and more importantly, for Africa.
Changing the traditional aid model
To turn things around, we must transform the model of traditional aid, and focus on three areas that are at the root of Africa’s hunger problem: lack of infrastructure, lack of financing, and misguided decision-maker mindsets.
First, African governments need to invest the aid they receive in infrastructure to facilitate agriculture. In Peru, for example, the government has channeled large sums of aid into making pressurized water accessible across tens of thousands of hectares of arable land. Rather than relying on charity and miracles, African countries need to create a foundation to ensure success during both good and bad times. This can be achieved by investing in technological solutions. Netafim’s drip technology is one such example. Drip is a proven, cost-effective irrigation method that has helped agricultural sectors in Israel, India, Brazil and elsewhere flourish by enabling growers to overcome climatic and other basic constraints.
Second, simple financial programs need to be developed that will enable African farmers and corporations to move from subsistence farming to commercially sustainable and growing businesses. International financing institutions, aid agencies, local banks, and governments must make financing for water and agriculture easily available without draconian collateral demands. By implementing such a responsible approach, growers will be able to leverage technological solutions that have been out of reach thus far.
Third, African countries need to stop relying on aid. In parallel, the West must transform its aid model from charity to impact investment, whereby investments can be monitored, evaluated and measured according to financial indicators such as internal rate of return (IRR) and payback period. Rather than offering food and inputs, the West needs to provide agriculture infrastructure and training. Rather than building refugee camps and multi-billion-dollar immigration integration programs in Europe, the West needs to help Africans create strong, sustainable economies.
In the 1950s, for example, Israel developed the National Water Carrier while promoting Netafim’s drip irrigation technology. By making water easily accessible to farms throughout the country, the Israeli government enabled growers to increase productivity and reduce water usage significantly. As a result, the country transformed itself from an importer of food to a world-renowned exporter of high-quality produce. India is following suit today with the introduction of micro-irrigation and community irrigation programs that are bringing millions of people out of poverty, improving individual and community livelihoods, and empowering women and family units. And in Africa, Ethiopia has committed itself to self-sufficient sugar production by investing in the Welkite project.
Offering a holistic solution
I believe that we need a holistic solution that addresses the water and infrastructure ecosystem of each country. To achieve this type of solution, training/capacity building, education, and regional consultation centers for growers must be implemented. Also, farmers’ commercial viability must be increased by helping them sell produce at fair prices, monitoring prices, storing food in central locations, and ensuring that food does not rot when transported from the field to the store. To make the most of government subsidies, such aid must be intelligently reallocated to areas that have a long-term impact such as education.
These steps not only will give everyone access to affordable, healthy food – a basic component of any successful society – but also will lead to macro changes. The economy will improve, emigration will drop, and governments will shift their focus to education and other growth-related issues. On an individual level, farmers will improve their livelihoods, women will be more empowered, and young people will remain in agriculture due
to easier farming techniques. And mothers will have more time to educate their children, leading to a better standard of education and quality of life.
As you can see, hunger and poverty need not be a destiny; they can be resolved once and for all.