Feeding the Future: 25 Years of the Sasakawa Africa AssociationEconomy
Look north as you drive over the dam at Sélingué and paddy fields stretch to the horizon. But the fertility of the valley bottom is deceptive, a break with the aridity of the surrounding hillsides.
The south is Mali’s most productive region, but even here farming is an insecure source of livelihood. Prosperity, health, and development depend on weather, grain prices, and the cost of basic essentials. And the margins are thin. The rains—poor this year—are over and the crops are almost in. Already the land is hard and dry, the grass a fading color more sand than green.
“People don’t sell their crops to get rich,” says Bourouhima Doumbia, the village chief. “They have to meet their basic needs: the cost of inputs for farming, school fees, and accommodation for children at secondary school far away in Bamako or other big towns, because there’s no lycée near here.”
This is the testing environment in which SAA works, helping small farmers boost their yields and improve the processing and marketing of their crops. The tools it brings to the task include small-scale mechanization and expert advice on how to use small quantities of fertilizer to impressive effect.
The Beginnings of Sasakawa Global 2000
Mali is one of four focus countries for SAA, which has just celebrated its 25th anniversary. Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda are its other main areas of operation. Everywhere, Sasakawa brings an ability to deliver expert advice through local field workers who make regular visits to partner villages. They draw on the knowledge and experience that has been developed over decades by the organization and that has its roots in the distinctive personal contribution of its founders.
SAA was born out of a pioneering collaboration between the philanthropist Sasakawa Ryōichi, former US president Jimmy Carter, and Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Prize–winning plant specialist who was one of the chief architects of the 1960s “Green Revolution” in South Asia.
Shaken by the terrible suffering caused by the African famines of the mid-1980s, Sasakawa contacted Borlaug to suggest working together to help the continent find solutions and avoid future disasters. When Borlaug objected that he was already well past retirement age, Sasakawa pointed out that he was ten years older still. Age was no excuse for standing aside, he said. With support from Carter, for whom African development had been a key concern since he left the White House, SAA was launched as an organization dedicated to boosting food production in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Importance of Agriculture
Today it is Sasakawa Yōhei—son of the late Ryōichi—who is chairman. He brings to the challenge the same personal commitment that drove his father.
“A person is born, and as soon as you are born, you have the right to live. And to live, you have to eat,” he says, addressing villagers and Sasakawa staff at a 25th anniversary celebration in the village of Medina near Mali’s southern border. “In Africa, even today, there are people who cannot get enough food to fill their stomachs. There are millions of people here in Africa who must go to bed hungry.”
Identifying the moral imperative is a first step. But the real test is to come up with effective ways of tackling the problem. SAA’s founders soon decided that agriculture was key, both in terms of dealing with the immediate food shortage and laying the foundations for future development of the grassroots economy, as Sasakawa explains in an interview:
“About 70-80 percent of people in Africa live in rural areas. They produce just enough food to feed their own family. Nothing is left over. They have no cash income and in many cases they are not able to get a nutritionally based diet.”
All too often, Sasakawa feels, politicians think of agriculture in terms of cash crops like cocoa and coffee. The subsistence farming upon which most families actually depend can suffer from political neglect. Because of this, SAA started out by showing small farmers how they could boost crop yields by using new seed varieties and applying fertilizer or pesticides.
Dealing with Unpredictable Harvests
In Mali, SAA began developing programs in four different regions of the country in 1996, eventually planting test plots on land in 416 villages. Local people are able to see for themselves how effective the techniques are by comparing the results with fields farmed in traditional ways.
But production is only the first step on the ladder. One of the things that make SAA stand out from many other NGOs is its focus on helping farmers develop local cooperative arrangements for marketing their surplus output. Improved storage facilities are another priority in an age when climate change threatens to bring even greater instability to the food supply.
In the past, says Sélingué’s chief Bourouhima Doumbia, the village’s biggest producers contributed 10 percent of their grain to a community reserve. Scattered among the village houses are traditional granaries, small circular mud-walled buildings with conical thatched roofs.
The village regards this informal arrangement as a version of zakat, the Muslim tradition of giving alms to charity. Local farmer Adama Doumbia says that although a formalized system of holding cereal stocks in reserve exists in more environmentally fragile regions of Mali, in Sélingué this has never been necessary—until now. But this year, he says, rainfall has been poor and for the first time villagers cannot be certain that their zakat reserves will be enough to ensure that everyone gets fed. Sélingué finds itself in a situation where the improved storage technologies SAA provides could prove vital.
Protecting Farmers Financially
SAA also helps with financial services. Traditionally, farmers have often been caught out by the seasonal fluctuation of prices. Down to their last reserves of cash by harvest-time, they often have no choice but to sell when everyone else’s crops are flooding the market and prices are low. Harvest also happens to coincide with the start of the new academic year—an expensive time when villagers have to find money for schoolbooks and may have to pay for the eldest to live away from home at secondary school.
Just a few months later, they may need to buy back grain to ensure the family continues to eat properly. But by now, grain is in short supply and prices are much higher. As a result, many farmers end up losing out financially.
To overcome this problem, SAA operates a scheme that allows cultivators to make some early sales but guarantees them the right to buy back at the same price if they need to several months later.
The Sasakawa team in Mali draws heavily on the pool of skills available locally: Dr. Abou Berthé, the country director, is an animal scientist who has also served as head of research at the national Institute of Rural Economy near Bamako. His team includes highly trained agronomists, such as Bokar Sissoko, who travels hundreds of kilometers each week, visiting villages in remote rural areas.
Bokar visits the Sélingué area roughly twice a month. At the moment he is exploring the possibility of setting up an Internet connection for the village. This would allow a village secretary to monitor farm prices and keep track of options for getting key supplies from the city.
The development programs of recent decades have already had a major impact at village level. Although many older people in the community have little knowledge of French, the language of administration and business in Mali, literacy levels are much better among younger men and women, enabling them to engage with the modern commercial economy.
The Situation in Mali
This year’s poor rains have come as a severe test for Mali, particularly as initial indications had suggested the West African country might be on course for a big increase in cereals output. Now government experts expect to reach a much more somber assessment once detailed harvest figures have been compiled. Even so, Mali remains better equipped to adjust to such a setback than many of its neighbors, despite its location in the Sahelian climatic belt, with northern regions stretching up into the Sahara desert.
The country has three powerful factors working in its favor as it seeks to ensure secure food supplies. Mali has enjoyed two decades of settled democratic government, and is preparing to hold its fifth successive free presidential election next year. This has provided stability for policymaking and maintained pressure on government and the political class to focus on the needs of ordinary people.
Secondly, the Niger River flows right across the country, spreading out at one point into a vast inland delta. This creates large tracts of farmland and allows irrigation even around the ancient city of Timbuktu on the fringes of the Sahara. Mali has ambitions to become the rice basket of West Africa.
The third factor is that, despite the country’s considerable reserves of gold, successive governments have focused firmly on agriculture—prioritizing the productivity of small farmers and building up large reserves of food.
“The first need of man is to feed himself,” Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Touré, told Nippon.com. “Beyond food security, we are looking for food sovereignty.”
Touré explains that although Mali also produces cotton as an export crop, the development of cereals output is a bigger priority. The price of cotton is beyond Malian control, whereas food production can provide a solid national base in tackling poverty.
“We subsidize food agriculture heavily,” says Touré.
The delivery of cheap fertilizer to farmers at grassroots level is still a work in progress, dependent on whether or not villagers are dealing with a supplier who has access to the subsidized supplies. But it is starting to make a significant difference.
Eradicating Child Hunger in Africa
In 2015, no African child should die of hunger or malnutrition. That was the ambitious target put forward last year by Jacques Diouf, head of the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Malawi’s President Bingu Wa Mutharika, then chair of the African Union.
Between 2009 and 2010, it is estimated that some 265 million people in sub-Saharan Africa suffered from malnutrition. The FAO reckons that 30 percent of the sub-Saharan population suffered from hunger in 2010. In light of these figures, the 2015 goal may seem unrealistically ambitious. But it may not be as far beyond reach as outsiders assume.
Diouf points out that Africa is rich in arable land and water. With the right policies, it could boost agricultural output and improve incomes and food security substantially. The continent increased its cereals output by 12 percent in 2008 alone.
The challenge is one that African governments can do much to tackle on their own, although external assistance and emergency supplies may sometimes be needed. In 2003, African governments pledged to allocate at least 10 percent of their national budgets to agriculture. So far, only nine countries have met this target.
Meanwhile, foreign donor support for farming has also declined relative to other development priorities. Diouf believes that underinvestment in agriculture is the core reason for African hunger and malnutrition. The potential impact of increased spending on agriculture is clearly enormous.
SAA’s Concrete Results in Africa
The Sasakawa Africa Association has been working in the village of Medina in the far south-west of Mali for ten years now. Diawara Djénéba Dianane and Diawara Fanta Bagayoyo, two women from the local women farmers’ group, report on the dramatic impact the new techniques demonstrated by SAA have had on agriculture in the region.
Previously, a household would expect to reap less than five sacks of grain from a half-hectare plot of land. Yet now it is possible to produce five sacks from a much smaller piece of land just 20 x 25 meters square. This is precisely the sort of practical result that SAA is trying to achieve through its promotion of new farming techniques. The aim is to demonstrate how the application of fertilizer and new seeds, even on a small scale, can dramatically transform farm output, enhancing family food and income security.
Headquartered in Addis Ababa, SAA is chaired by Professor Ruth Oniang’o, a Kenyan nutritionist. Day-to-day operations are led by managing director Juliana Rwelamira, a Tanzanian agricultural economist. Their task is to carry forward the work started by Norman Borlaug, Sasakawa Ryōichi, and Jimmy Carter 25 years ago. In recent years, this has meant going beyond the initial drive to boost output and helping farmers to acquire the technology to transform their crops and gain the self-confidence to market their produce effectively.
The project’s staff are acutely aware of the need to be pragmatic and work with the resources that are actually available. On his final visit to Africa in 2006, Borlaug, already in his nineties, bluntly advised his SAA colleagues: “Don’t wait for the perfect conditions or the perfect seed variety. Use whatever is available—and get on with it.”