Three Steps for Transforming Agriculture to Feed the World

In this guest post, Nick Austin, Agricultural Development Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, outlines a new global roadmap for transforming smallholder farming in order to feed the world. Part of Farming First’s #SDG2countdown series on SDG2.1 – ending hunger.

For smallholder farmer Rahlia Michael, life was a constant struggle. No matter how many hours she worked, she found it impossible to feed her large family from the income she made from her farm.

But this all changed when Babban Gona, the award-winning initiative to support smallholder farmers, came to her Nigerian community. For the first time, Rahlia and farmers like her now had the financial help, knowledge and training to reward their hard work.

Working with Babban Gona has provided access to low-cost, high-quality fertilizer and seeds, expert advice to make the most of them, and improved marketing to help sell what is grown. The results have helped transform Rahlia’s life. Her increased maize yields and the improved quality of her harvest means she enjoys a much better income. It is extra money not only to provide nutritious food for her family but to allow her to continue investing in her farm and meet the cost of school fees for her children.

This positive and lasting impact both on her family and the wider community underlines the crucial importance of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 2. Even within the extraordinary ambition of the SDGs, the agreement to end hunger and malnutrition and promote sustainable agriculture by 2030 is one of the boldest commitments world leaders have ever made.  Achieving this goal is going to require an enormous collective effort.

After all, an estimated 795 million people – one in nine of the population – today lack the food to lead a healthy, productive life. And population growth means, without urgent action, the challenge will only get greater in sub-Saharan Africa which already has the highest percentage of hungry people in the world.

It is projected that business as usual in the SSA region will see their numbers grow by another eight million just between 2014 and 2024. Overall, it is estimated that global food production will have to increase by 70 percent by 2050 to meet the needs of what will then be nine billion people.

But while the challenges are great, so are the potential gains. As Rahlia’s story shows, if we can boost agricultural productivity, we can not only lift permanently the shadow of hunger from hundreds of millions of people but can also transform global health and prosperity.

Agriculture is the engine that continues to power African economies. It employs three-quarters of the workforce and accounts for one third of GDP. Raising agricultural output – and the output of small producers – is as much as four times more effective in reducing poverty than growth in any other sector.

It is why the central role of smallholder farmers has been recognized within SDG2 through the goal of doubling their productivity and incomes.  Ending hunger and tackling poverty can’t be achieved without helping them maximize their potential.

Reaping these rewards, however, requires coupling the vision of SDG 2 with a practical plan to deliver its ambition. Starting any journey without a clear idea of how to get to the destination always risks delays. This is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is collaborating with global leaders and partners to create an actionable roadmap that has the potential to transform the lives of smallholder farmers. At its heart, we believe progress is needed on three essential elements.

Developing consensus

Collectively, we have tremendous knowledge and expertise on how to support smallholder farmers. Over the last half-century, there have been many successful initiatives such as Babban Gona to improve agricultural productivity. But these have often been implemented at the community level and lessons learned have not always been widely recognized. They have too often not translated to transformative change that improves the lives of many. A thorough expert examination of the available evidence would allow us all to identify where we should concentrate our resources. A similar exercise to find the most effective ways to tackle child hunger and malnutrition is already helping focus attention and efforts on the highest impact interventions.

Securing resources

Consensus on the approaches that have the greatest impact will help us in determining the scale and type of resources countries need to boost their agricultural productivity – and how they can best be channelled to create new opportunities for smallholder farmers like Rahlia. A better understanding of the funding gap will make it easier to attract additional capital whether from governments, donors or the private sector. It will also prevent competition for new funds and help ensure that existing investments are allocated to activities with the greatest potential to transform lives of farmers.

Measuring progress

Agreement on the right interventions and financing models will enable decisions to be made on what should be measured and allow the right evaluation systems to be put in place. We remain quite a distance from what’s needed. For example, we do not yet have either global or sub-Saharan Africa figures on smallholder productivity or incomes. This knowledge is essential to transform the agricultural sector and drive inclusive economic growth.

The ambition set out in SDG 2 and the focus on smallholders has the potential to drive catalytic change and transform the world. Boosting smallholder productivity will help improve rural economies, reduce poverty and ensure access to nutritious food.

But it won’t be achieved without a clear roadmap to identify priorities, guide resources and measure progress. Our destination is simply too important to risk getting lost along the way.