When Ajmal Abdulsamad (MIDP ’11) visited Burundi in February, he was introduced to a small local company that was enjoying great success using tissue culture technology to reproduce banana saplings. It had established connections with universities in Belgium and India and had recruited 80 staff.

Not long after, however, an international aid organization arrived and began distributing banana saplings for free.  The small company was driven to the brink of bankruptcy and downsized its staff from 80 to 25.

It’s these kinds of misguided initiatives that need to be combated, said participants in a panel held Thursday, Feb. 27, on promoting agricultural innovation in Africa. Rather than taking a top-down approach to sharing technology, panelists said, governments and organizations need to build farmers’ capacity so they are empowered to become business partners in agricultural value chains.

“Recognizing smallholder farming as ‘small business’ is essential to scaling up innovations and boosting the economy,” Abdulsamad said.

Abdulsamad, who is currently research analyst at the Center on Globalization, Governance and Competitiveness (CGGC) at Duke University, was joined in the discussion by Kimberly Pfeifer, head of research at Oxfam America, and Peter Bolt, managing director and founder of the Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company (DADTCO).

The panel was part of the University Seminar on Globalization, Governance and Development, co-chaired by Gary Gereffi, director of CGGC, and Giovanni Zanalda. Gereffi moderated the discussion.

The role of smallholder farms

When the Rockefeller Foundation celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, it held a series of summits in Abuja, Nigeria, to spotlight innovations with the potential to help vulnerable people throughout the world over the next century.

One of these summits, “Realizing the Potential of African Agriculture: Catalytic Innovations for Growth,” brought together senior leaders in agriculture and finance from more than 23 African countries to identify ways to strengthen African agricultural markets and value chains.

Participants in the summit recognized the pivotal role that smallholder farmers in Africa play in helping fight worldwide hunger, especially in rural areas. These farms typically support themselves with a mixture of subsistence farming and cash crops.

“One in eight people will go to bed hungry tonight. That’s nearly three times the population of the United States,” Pfeifer said. “We see smallholder farmers as part of the solution of not only achieving global food security, but also growing economies in Africa.”

During the summit, organizations learned that smallholder farmers face almost insurmountable challenges when it comes to developing successful business models and gaining access to markets.

“Here’s the list,” Pfeifer said. “A lack of access to credit, inadequate access to information, insecure land rights and tenure systems, lack of an enabling environment, inadequate private sector investments, lack of knowledge, insufficient government budgets, unfair competition, and tariffs.”

The next century of innovation

The Rockefeller Foundation selected CGGC to develop a research methodology and collaborate with Oxfam America to identify the most promising innovations in Africa, and to evaluate how these solutions could provide continent-wide models for development. Abdulsamad, lead researcher for the project, worked with a team of researchers from CGGC and Oxfam America to develop a conceptual framework and criteria to evaluate 120 innovations.

Once the pool was narrowed to 13, Oxfam teams conducted field visits and in-depth stakeholder interviews to choose the eight winning innovations. These included systems for better managing risks brought about by climate change, improving the quality of seeds, raising healthier livestock to increase milk production, and better regulating urban farming.

“All of these cases focused on building innovation capacity of smallholders by reducing their transaction costs in input and output markets through building economies of scale, improving access to affordable finance, developing farmers’ technical and business skills, and engaging them in value chain linkages,” Abdulsamad said.

Sowing in hope, reaping in tears

One of the most promising innovations identified was attributed to Peter Bolt, the third participant on the panel. Bolt founded the Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company, or DADTCO, in 2002 to diminish Africa’s dependency on imports by giving farmers access to competitive markets for their products.

Bolt cited a quote by Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Adesina Akinwumi, as one of the inspirations for his work: “We spend our foreign exchange making farmers of other countries rich. Nigerian farmers sow in hope, and reap in tears, as cheap food imports dash their hopes of better prices and incomes.”

In response to this problem, Bolt devised a way to use a staple crop in Africa to create a solid economic basis for growth. He chose cassava because of the crop’s tolerance to drought, high yields per hectare and the volume of starch contained in its roots. In addition, he said, cassava is “a part of culture and part of life” in Africa.

“It is the only crop that, if something happens to everything else, they can always fall back on,” he said.

Bolt developed the Autonomous Mobile Processing Unit (AMPU), a mobile cassava processing plant that goes directly to smallholder farms in Nigeria, Mozambique and Ghana. The mobile plant enables farmers to process their crop into cassava cakes, which can be used in beer brewing or processed into flour, starch and glucose. These cakes can be stored for up to two years, opening new markets that were once limited because of root spoilage during transportation.

“We were looking for a crop that wouldn’t jut benefit a small part of Africa, but all of Africa,” Bolt said.

DADTCO now aims to become the leading cassava flour and starch producer in Africa. Approximately 72 million tons of cassava products are processed every year, with an average growth rate of 4 percent. The wealth produced by this new industry, Bolt said, stands to benefit economies throughout Africa.  

“Africa has a great future, and if we put all of our heads together we can make that happen,” Bolt said.

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