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Feeding the Future: 25 Years of the Sasakawa Africa Association
A field visit to a Japanese NGO working with farmers in Mali, West Africa

Paul Melly [Profile]


The Sasakawa Africa Association (SAA) administers and manages Sasakawa Global 2000, a program to bring about food security in sub-Saharan Africa. It celebrated 25 years in November 2011. A symposium to mark the event took place on November 2–4 in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré and Sasakawa Yōhei, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, were among those in attendance. British journalist Paul Melly was on hand to report for

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.

Nippon Foundation Chairman Sasakawa Yōhei with Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré and other VIPs at an event to celebrate 25 years of the Sasakawa Africa Association.

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.

  • [2011.12.19]

Paul Melly is a journalist with a special interest in development issues. He covers economics and politics in West and Central Africa, the Maghreb, and the Gulf. He is a member of the InDepth Reporters Group editorial team and associate fellow of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, a London-based foreign affairs think tank.

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