Agri focus: World Food Prize winner Monty Jones talks to us

Dr Monty Jones, a Sierra Leonean, is the executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). In 2004 Jones was co-winner of the prestigious 2004 World Food Prize, awarded for his discovery of the genetic process to create the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) which gives higher yields, shorter growth cycles and more protein content than its Asian and African parents. He was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for 2007 by TIME magazine. In an interview with Jaco Maritz, he talks about a broad range of issues currently affecting Africa’s agriculture sector.

Dr Monty Jones

Dr Monty Jones Picture: TIME

Africa has numerous agricultural research organisations, but how effectively is all this knowledge being transferred to small-scale farmers on the ground?

Your question reflects a frustration with African agriculture, which is dominated by small-scale producers, not reaching their potential. However, it reflects an old and failed paradigm that has constrained the uptake of new technologies, i.e., that researchers devise solutions that must be transferred to recipient small-scale farmers.

FARA believes the farmers must not be regarded as mere beneficiaries but rather as full co-actors in research to determine the solutions to their problems. This has proven to be much more effective in bringing about change in small-scale production systems as for example in participatory plant breeding.

Another difficulty for effective research delivery is that the farmers are only one link in the agricultural value chains and most often when an ‘apparently’ good technology is not adopted it is because there is a problem further up or down the value chain that has not been resolved. The often repeated statement that there are good technologies on the shelf is mostly false. There are many examples of good technologies being taken up even when they are opposed such as the uptake of high grade dairy cattle in Kenya. An example of related constraints in the value chain is provided by the broad bed maker which can be used to improve drainage in Ethiopian vertisols but cannot be adopted unless it is accompanied by efficient and reliable supplies of inputs and produce buyers.

FARA is promoting the Integrated Agricultural Research for Development (IAR4D) approach which enables all the actors in the agricultural value chains to be appropriately involved in the innovation processes that bring about sustainable change for the better.

Please note that, contrary to common perceptions, African farmers have not been standing by waiting for things to happen. I refer you to an article by Jules Pretty presented at the 2010 FARA general assembly entitled Sustainable Intensification in African Agriculture: Analysis of Cases and Common Lessons in which he states that, on a net production basis, rather than on the more common per capital basis, there has been substantial production growth across all regions of Africa, with output more than trebling and growing faster than world output. He goes on to provide evidence that African agriculture has in fact been dynamic and adaptive over many years.

Does FARA encourage subsistence farmers to start selling their produce and become more commercial, or is the organisation’s goal simply to increase yields for the farmers’ own food security?

Nobody needs to encourage small-scale farmers to become more commercial because no one is more keenly aware of profit and loss than they are. Unlike large farmers who can afford a few hobbies every decision a small-scale farmer makes has significant financial consequences.

Some small-scale producers are so lacking in resources that they are merely scratching a living from day-to-day and cannot produce marketable surpluses. They need a cash injection and often readily available innovations to break out of the poverty trap and have the means to stop having to mine their land and invest in improvements. For example, the Millennium Villages initiative provides simple solutions like providing high-yield seeds, fertilisers, medicines, drinking wells, and materials to build school rooms and clinics which are effective in combating extreme poverty.

However, the vast majority of so-called subsistence farmers are not producing produce for sale because market imperfections prevent them from doing so. The incentive to specialise to produce what the farm is most suited to, rather than continuing to produce the variety of foods and commodities demanded by the family such as leather and fibres, is largely determined by the difference between the farm-gate prices and the cost of the same goods in the market.

In other words the incentive to produce a ‘subsistence’ crop is a function of what it would cost the family to buy it rather than to produce it. With more efficient markets, which have lower transaction costs and fewer rent-seeking opportunities for traders, the farmers will get more for what they produce and will have to pay less for what they buy. That will increase the incentive for them to specialise in what they can do best because they will be able to rely on being able to purchase the other things they need to sustain their households.

The responsiveness of smallholders to market opportunities has been demonstrated time and again as for example in the Kenya commercial dairy sector which is dominated by smallholders.

What role should commercial banks play in assisting Africa’s small-scale farmers? Are banks serious enough about servicing this market?

Agriculture is Africa’s dominant industry so it follows that the commercial banks have a huge opportunity and responsibility in assisting its development. There are several examples of new and non-conventional approaches being adopted by commercial banks such as Equity and Stanbic to become more involved in agriculture. The micro-finance sector is also expanding its reach to small-scale agriculture.

This encouraged by the forecasts of commodity prices which, if they keep ahead of input cost inflation, will improve profitability and capacity to repay the loan. Energy prices, which have a big influence on input prices, will be a key factor in this equation.

Another encouragement to banks to get involved is the development of innovative insurance schemes, such as being piloted in Ethiopia and Kenya, which are triggered by remote weather data and are therefore free of the perverse incentives and administration difficulties of older schemes which were based on production data.

Bank lending is also supported by innovative e-technology. Kenya, for example, is about to launch a holistic e-information system that will cover all aspects of the whole dairy industry from producer to wholesaler which should give the banks confidence.

As another example, Zambia is introducing a scheme by which producers can have up-front credit on their mobile phones which they can use to purchase farm inputs. This overcomes the greatest constraint from the farmers’ perspective, which is not the interest rate, but rather the disproportionally high transaction costs in accessing small amounts of credit. The list of such innovations is growing daily.

In summary, the industry is too large for the commercial banks not to be involved, and there are innovative means for reducing the risks and the transaction costs associated with small loans.

Foreign countries are currently buying/leasing large areas of land in Africa for agriculture; is this beneficial for the continent over the long run?

FARA has no general opinion on the issue of access to African land by foreigners because it is a national sovereign issue and every case must be judged on its own merits.

However, the underlying motivation for these allocations is the lack of endogenous capacity amongst local firms who would otherwise surely have the inside track on such allocations. This must be taken as an extremely serious wake up call for all parties, public and private, responsible for building Africa’s human capacity in agriculture.

We should not accept the situation in which Africa is so short of agricultural investment and management capacity that a vacuum has been created which is drawing in foreign firms. We should understand that if we do not have the capacity to put sufficient agricultural commodities on the market there will be an irresistible pressure on countries with inadequate agricultural resources to move in to produce it themselves. We have the land, labour and capital and we can and must build the human and institutional capacity as a matter of the utmost urgency.