According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation “the food-insecure need control over resources, access to opportunities, and improved governance at the international, national and local level.
How many farmers in Africa are asked what they would like to happen in agriculture? The answer isn’t surprising: very very few. Rural people see politicians shortly before elections. The rest of the time rural people are trying to dodge eager development researchers with long and annoying questions that keep them away from their fields for very little visible benefit.
Strange because farmers know about producing food… And Africa has a lot of farmers and fisherfolk. Most of the world’s poor live in the countryside and work on the land to feed their families. In these rural communities, people get energy, food and water directly from the natural areas they live in.
Rural people are natural resource managers who can be key to reduce and reverse environmental damage. That’s why investing in agriculture is essential to address poverty and hunger. Rural areas lack the kind of infrastructure that can be found in cities, electricity, piped and treated water are rare in rural areas. So if African countries want to lift the 35.2 % of Africans living on less than 1,.90 USD a day, they need to focus money and attention on agriculture and on improving infrastructure in rural areas.
Food can’t get to market without reliable roads. Healthy, educated farmers can produce more food. And for those interested in gender, the majority of the world’s food is being produced by small scale lady farmers who have less access to training, finance and are less likely to own land than men.
Poor people are really hard hit by unexpected events because they usually have no savings nor insurance. If a family has savings or income from a job that isn’t related to agriculture, that family is more likely to be able to buy food when the harvest fails, even if the food prices go up. If a family member dies or if the dry season lasts a bit longer than expected, if insects get into the food storage area or crops rot on the way to market, extremely poor people can’t recover from the loss of income unless they get some kind of help. And in Africa social benefits like unemployment or help with rent and medical care, isn’t something many people get. Some African countries now make direct cash payments to the poorest citizens but this kind of support is still quite rare.
In unequal societies all over the world, large sections of the population can be simply excluded from the political spaces where real decisions are made. It’s time we change from top-down and expert-led governance and from vertical networks of power. In Cameroon we call those networks “Man know man”. Note the emphasis on “Man”. In Germany that’s called “Vitamin B”, with “B” standing for “Beziehung” or relationship. “Man know man is everywhere.” Networks are great for the people who belong to them. Enter the right political, business or society network and you have easier access to the people who make important decisions about finance, infrastructure and jobs.
If rural people are able to influence political decision-making processes they might have a chance to make a better living. At the moment farmers and fishers face tough competition from ultra-cheap, subsidised food like factory reared chicken being produced in rich countries and dumped on the market in poor countries. But how do farmers and fisherfolk get that kind of influence? Usually by drawing on traditional institutions, elders and leaders. In all cultures across the world, being related to a person of influence can be useful for access to spaces where decisions are made. Still, this is not the most reliable or fair way to get legitimate needs met.
Farmer participation in decision making is based on the principle of citizen participation. When this principle is broken farmers can turn extremely political. In Cameroon this April angry farmers in Dibombari, Littoral Province, blocked access to the plantations of Socfin, which is owned by French company Bollore. Socfin is accused of unfairly grabbing land in six districts of the country. At the international level women’s farming and agricultural unions and movements regularly protest the slow pace of action on climate change at the climate negotiations. Africa hasn’t contributed to the emissions that cause climate change but the continent is likely to face some of the worst impacts to its agricultural sector.
Everyone needs to start talking to farmers. The heads of the United Nations, the World Bank, African Presidents, Ministers, Mayors, Senior Divisional Officers… everyone. Us too, if we want to preserve our environments and to eat food that has been produced under fair conditions.