Welcome Remarks by Mr. Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs to the High-Level Meeting on African Agriculture in the 21st Century
Windhoek, Namibia, 9-10 February 2009

Excellencies,
Colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the United Nations and its Department of Economic and Social Affairs, I welcome you to this high-level meeting on “African Agriculture in the 21st Century: Meeting the Challenges, Making a Sustainable Green Revolution”.

We are grateful to the Government of Namibia for co-organizing this important meeting with the United Nations.

Our thanks go especially to the Minister for Environment and Tourism of Namibia, Her Excellency Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah. The Minister’s thought-provoking statement will help guide our discussions over the next two days.

I also welcome the presence of Her Excellency Gerda Verburg, the Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality of the Netherlands, in her capacity as Chairperson of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development. Her participation confirms the importance the Commission attaches to this inter-sessional meeting.

I would like to begin with a few words about the broader context of sustainable development challenges in Africa.

In the past year, the global food crisis has hit many African countries hard. Prices have fallen back somewhat in the last six months. Yet, the damage of the food crisis to the poor and the hungry has already been done, and the recent price fall has not brought the desired relief. To understand why, we need to look at the effects of the current global financial and economic crisis – and to remind ourselves of the long-standing problems of the agricultural sector in Africa.

The collapse of global demand is pushing down the prices of commodities on which many African countries depend for foreign exchange earnings. They are therefore finding it more difficult to finance their food and fuel imports.

African governments also face a fiscal squeeze, as they depend heavily on trade taxes for their revenues. With fiscal austerity, cuts are usually made first to long-term capital investments, such as infrastructure, and to social programmes. Yet, African countries urgently need to sustain those investments in infrastructure, as well as in health and education. Most importantly, the food crisis has made painfully clear how more investment is needed in agriculture.

How African governments will meet these demands, with their dwindling revenue base, is an immediate challenge of sustainable development.

The unfolding global crisis threatens to reverse the progress Africa has made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals. In the Doha Declaration on Financing for Development, Member States affirmed their determination to meet their aid commitments despite global economic uncertainty. They also agreed to hold a UN conference at the highest level on the impact of the global financial and economic crisis on development, and the way forward.

The time for damage control is now. The situation is urgent. Developing African countries need to be able to create jobs for the unemployed and those entering the labour market, and to provide social protection for the vulnerable. Their governments need to find alternative revenue sources to maintain vital public services. Credit markets need to be unblocked, not least to enable traders to import vital supplies of food and fuel.

On top of this heavy short-term agenda, there are long-term sustainable development challenges confronting Africa. Climate change is already affecting the continent, which is likely to bear some of the worst impacts on its agricultural production. With the assistance of the international community, African countries will need to develop drought- and heat-resistant crops, improved livestock breeds, and new methods of soil and water conservation and management.

Climate change will also place stress on forests, which are already under intensified pressure from population growth, the expansion of the agricultural frontier and commercial logging. Conflict in some places greatly complicates sustainable forest management.

Other natural resources are being severely depleted, from fisheries to freshwater supplies to top soils. Yet, together with forests, these are immensely valuable assets. If managed in a sustainable and equitable manner, they can work to the long-term benefit of all Africans.

These sustainable development challenges – short-term and long-term – are the backdrop for this meeting on African agriculture in the 21st century. Now, you are the experts on this, not I. But permit me to offer a few reflections.

I grew up in a farming family in a poor village of rural China. I know first-hand the daily struggle to raise enough food to feed hungry mouths.

Coming from Asia, home of the first green revolution, I have seen the power of agricultural innovation to transform livelihoods and lift rural people out of poverty.

Like Asia in the 1960s and 1970s, Africa faces the daunting challenge of feeding a rapidly growing population. But, Africa’s agricultural productivity has been stagnant for many decades.

Your focus is how to make an African Green Revolution, or, as some of you may prefer, revolutions.

African agriculture has its own characteristics, as noted so clearly by the report of the Inter-Academy Council, written by some of our experts at this meeting. Let me mention some of them: lack of a dominant farming system (for example, irrigated rice or wheat) on which food security depends; the prevalence of rain-fed instead of irrigated agriculture; the dominance of weathered soils with poor fertility; and the importance of livestock raising as a source of livelihood. The central place of women farmers is also noteworthy in Africa – and important for devising a successful approach to boosting productivity.

All this means that Africa needs intensified agricultural research and development across a broad range of crops, farming systems and agro-climatic conditions. It needs extension services which effectively encourage adoption of innovations by women farmers. It needs to develop its irrigation infrastructure where feasible and to improve methods of agricultural water management where it is not. It needs effective, low-cost ways of enriching soils and retaining soil moisture.

Beyond the farm, Africa also needs to strengthen rural input and produce markets, to improve farm-to-market roads, to enhance access to formal credit, and to invest in better processing and storage technologies to reduce post-harvest losses.

To be effective, these measures will need to be well coordinated. Such coordination can be facilitated by comprehensive plans for agricultural development. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Plan (CAADP), issued by NEPAD in 2003, provides a framework for revitalizing agriculture on the continent. It deserves strong international support. So do the efforts of African governments to raise public expenditure on agriculture to reach 10 per cent of their budgets, in line with the Maputo Declaration.

While the worsening global financial and economic crisis makes raising investment levels more difficult, for both Africa and its development partners, now is not the time to waiver in support of an African Green Revolution. Indeed, that support needs to be intensified if the continent is to feed its growing population, become a more important participant in global agricultural markets, and move into higher value-added crops and agricultural products, which promise higher returns to farmers and higher living standards in the countryside.

Supporting African agriculture will also mean ensuring that African agricultural goods, including processed goods, have free access to global markets. High tariffs, tariff escalation, and subsidies in agriculture and fisheries are applied extensively to products that offer high potential for African export diversification. Regardless of any outcome in the Doha trade negotiations, it is important that advanced countries adhere to their promise of immediate free access to their markets for all exports (but arms) from Least Developed Countries, most of which are African.

While African agriculture faces multiple challenges, I am optimistic. Why? Africa enjoys many potential advantages. It has relatively abundant land, compared to densely populated Asia. It has an industrious workforce, impressive entrepreneurial skills, and a deep reservoir of traditional knowledge. It has the benefit of the dramatic advances in science and technology since the first Green Revolution. If Africa is able to utilize effectively its natural, human and technological resources, it can become an agricultural powerhouse in the decades to come, feeding its own people, sustainably growing biofuels to meet its energy needs, and supplying the rapidly growing world food and other agricultural markets.

In the longer term, Africa, like Asia, will undergo a rural transition. Rising productivity in agriculture will be accompanied by growing opportunities for off-farm employment in higher paying jobs, in villages and towns or in the rapidly growing cities. As in Asia and other continents, African governments – at all levels – will face challenges in this process. How to manage the rural transition will be the topic of a roundtable discussion tomorrow.

I look forward to hearing your ideas on that and to stimulating discussions over these coming two days. I hope that, by the end of the day tomorrow, you will have endorsed a strong and ambitious statement of priorities for action to advance the sustainable development of African agriculture in the 21st century. Your message will be carried by Minister Nandi-Ndaitwah of Namibia to the 17th session of the Commission on Sustainable Development, which meets in New York in early May.

According to an Igbo proverb, “The hunger that has hope for its satisfaction does not kill.” We all hunger for answers to the question of how to achieve sustainable Green Revolutions across the continent that will lift hundreds of millions of people, permanently, out of poverty.

Thank you.