A Conversation with Senior African Leaders:
How Africa Can Meet Its Food Security and Financial Challenges, and Priorities for US Assistance Now

February 27, 2009 // 11:00am1:00pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
Africa Program

On February 27, The Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity and Africa Program and The Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa presented a discussion with African government and civil society leaders on current food security and poverty issues, as well as imperatives for US assistance.

Michael Van Dusen, Deputy Director, Woodrow Wilson Center

Steve McDonald, Consulting Program Director, Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity, Woodrow Wilson Center
Julie Howard, Executive Director, Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa

Prof. Richard Mkandawire, Agricultural Advisor, NEPAD
Beatrice Gakuba, CEO, RwandaFlora
Peter Ngategize, Ministry of Finance, Uganda
Willis Oluoch-Kosure, Program Director, Collaborative Master of Science in Agricultural and Applied Economics, African Economic Research Consortium

Hunger, rural poverty, food insecurity, and insufficient investment in agricultural sectors; these phenomena have long been persistent on the continent of Africa. Current food crises and the global economic downturn have brought these chronic challenges onto a more conspicuous and urgent level. On February 27, 2009, five African government and civil society leaders were invited to the Woodrow Wilson Center by co-sponsors the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa (Partnership) and the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity and Africa Program, to address current food security challenges in Africa and their implications for US development assistance strategy. During the two-hour discussion, the panelists drew on various personal experiences in the field and reached the consensus that the agricultural sector is the critical priority for national development agendas because of its potential to alleviate poverty, grow the economy, and promote public health.

After an introduction from Michael Van Dusen, deputy director the Wilson Center, Julie Howard, the Executive Director of the Partnership, explained the rationale for the establishment of Partnership in 2000, highlighting the main themes of the recent week-long conference with 150 African agricultural sector leaders. From her perspective, the major problems with current US development assistance to Africa include the fragmentation of programs among various agencies, the devastating impact of agricultural earmarks, and institutional constraints that hamper aid effectiveness. Surging global food prices have had severe repercussions on the poorest people in the world, causing food riots, failing governments, and a sharp increase in hunger and poverty throughout the region. Howard noted that in spite of these challenges the crisis has catalyzed serious attention from the US Congress and Obama administration, donor agencies, and NGOs, resulting in calls for a more integrated plan across the various agencies to resolve the food crisis and tackle other food security challenges worldwide. In addition, a strong African leadership has emerged on these issues, with solid national frameworks for agricultural growth. Although currently assistance programs between the US and Africa are largely bi-lateral, she proposed designating a "go to" person, or office, to coordinate US aid efforts, and integrating Africa's approach to take advantage of linkages among neighboring countries to enhance trade and regional cooperation.

Richard Mkandawire is the agriculture advisor for New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD). Deeply encouraged by the emerging notion of a homegrown African agriculture development plan and unprecedented support from the international community for agriculture, he was optimistic about the future growth of agriculture and viewed the financial crisis as an opportunity for a renaissance. Although previous development agendas were mainly Western driven and deeply influenced by the Washington Consensus, in November, 2002, the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program brought together national visions for agricultural development, leading to an agreement to increase agriculture's budget allocation by10%. Tangible progress has been made, and 12 countries have reported a positive growth rate of 5% to 6% in past five years. He also pointed to the trend of new partnerships with non-traditional donors, namely Venezuela, the Gulf States, and China, and more space for private sector investment and civil society involvement. Although these developments bring hope, they are coupled with challenges. How to better engage and partner with these new donors, non-state actors, and civil society organizations is an important topic for local governments, think tanks, and aid agencies to explore.

Ms. Beatrice Gakuba, an entrepreneur in agribusiness who is now the CEO of Rwanda Flora, expressed deep concern over the development disparities between rural areas and major cities. Lack of access to water, sanitation, and electricity has made the cost of doing business in rural areas much more expensive than in urban zones, by as much as 50%. Natural catastrophes and weak financial institutions have worsened the investment environment in rural regions that rely on agriculture. She called for governments to adopt policies, such as lower interest rates, that would to increase private investment in rural areas. Another major issue is gender inequality, exemplified by the difficulties that female farmers and entrepreneurs encounter seeking loans to launch businesses. Finally, many small-scale farmers lack the necessary accounting skills to run a business—access to training and education is still a key issue. Gakuba also drew attention to the importance of connecting local production to regional and international markets, which would allow the agricultural sector to grow, improving nutrition and increasing productivity through access to new technologies. The role of women is central, because security at the household-level is a stepping stone for national and regional security.

Peter Ngategize outlined the effects of the financial downturn on Uganda, reporting that Uganda has not suffered heavy asset losses, but that the tourism and traditional exports sectors have fallen on hardship, and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has decreased substantially. In spite of the discovery of new oil reserves in recent years, Uganda is still affected by increasing global fuel prices, and faces inherent challenges as a land-locked country to transportation and placement of oil pipelines. Piracy in and near Somalia also increases the insurance cost for petrol coming from overseas. Food security is another major issue. Uganda, once a food net food exporter, is now a net importer, with food production still largely dependent on climate. Uganda's decisionmakers have convened to discuss solutions to the current crisis, and prescribed a two-pillar framework: making Uganda more land-connected rather than land-locked, and taking advantage of the current food deficit to increase food exports to neighboring countries. How Uganda should respond to the growing demand from international investors for agricultural land use will be a key issue in the agricultural sector reform package, with establishing public/private partnerships a priority for Ngategize. Although public land leased to investors from the Middle East and China ground could potentially upgrade local food supplies, these efforts have been stymied by land ownership restrictions. Finally, he touched on increasing regional integration, which has yielded positive results in certain areas, such as stimulating private operators and improving regional transportation. All of these efforts toward enhancing coordination among public and private donor groups should be examined under the bigger picture of sustainability, transparency, greater systematic cooperation, and efficiency of public institutions.

Willis Oluoch-Kosure took a different approach to the issue, focusing his speech on education in the context of African development. He identified agricultural reform and productivity as key components in achieving the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 and alleviating the greatest threats to peace and security. Oluoch-Kosure posited that the problem is not a lack of good policy ideas on the continent; the failure is in implementation and weak institutional structures. To achieve a greener and more prosperous Africa, a sound rural information system, sharing of best practices for natural resource management and entrepreneurship, and adopting better farming methods to increase productivity are essential. Education is one of the initial steps to help Africa escape the poverty trap. However, an extreme shortage in basic school supplies such as tables and classroom spaces and the high rate of brain drain are making educational progress difficult. In response to these challenges, a professional network in Eastern, Central, and Southern African has been established to strengthen capacity for policy analysis and research, with 16 university departments from 12 countries participating. Science, technology, and agriculture have been put on top of the agenda. The network also runs a Collaborative Master of Science in Agriculture and Applied Economics (CMAAE), in Kenya, which Oluouch-Kosure directs.

This event cultivated an informative and productive dialogue among a diverse group of African professionals working in the agricultural sector or on agriculture issues. All the panelists stressed repeatedly the significant and central role of agriculture in alleviating poverty and promoting growth in Africa, and placed infrastructure development and capacity building at the center of multilayer development endeavors both domestic and international. The current global financial crisis could present an unprecedented opportunity to revisit the chronic issues, namely low agriculture productivity, gender inequality, and misallocation of limited resources.

Drafted by Zhu Sha
Intern for the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity

Experts & Staff

Wilson Center Photo Gallery

Browse or share photos from the Wilson Center’s events.

To Attend an Event

Unless otherwise noted:

Meetings listed on this page are free and open to the public. Reservations are not required unless otherwise noted. All meetings take place at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC. Please see map and directions. Allow time for routine security procedures. A photo ID is required for entry.

To confirm time and place, contact Maria-Stella Gatzoulis on the day of the event: tel. (202) 691-4188. Check this page for the latest updates and notices.