Addis, Lucy and food security

Last week I returned from my second trip to Africa in one month, this time to Ethiopia. I went there as an advisory board member of Food Secure, a large EU research consortium on food security. This was my first time in East Africa, Addis is about 3000 feet above sea level, which means you do not need to worry about malaria but it was rainy and cold, and I was freezing.

We stayed in the beautiful campus of ILRI (International Livestock Research Institute) in the city. The city is going through a building boom, and it has the usual mix of high-rises and huts, businessmen in 3-piece suits and children with no shoes. Addis has a wonderful museum, in a beautiful Italian villa – the highlight of the museum was ‘Lucy’ our grandmother, who was there with several others of our ancestors.

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The museum also houses wonderful pieces of African art as well as the throne of King Haile Selassie. When I was a kid, I was fascinated by Haile Selassie, the lion of Judah, who begged the League of Nations for help, then bravely led his country in fighting the Mussolini troops in the 1930’s (I’m not actually that old, but I learned about it in history).

IMG_1208IMG_1207 The king was overthrown and imprisoned in the 1970’s by a revolution that made a bad situation worse, but now it seems that he has become a national icon again. Visiting there I could not help but think how vulnerable countries are to shortsighted extremists, like the Tea-Partiers of today. Another highlight of my introduction to Addis was my visit to a fantastic Ethiopian restaurant in a traditional and elegant setting and wonderful food, but the truth is that some of our Berkeley Ethiopian establishments are quite good in comparison. One thing that was fantastic was the coffee, smooth, rich in flavor – I understand why Peet’s was charging so much for it.

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The conference started with a great overview of the food situation in 4 critical regions. While overall malnourishment has improved relatively all over the world, it has become worse in Africa.[1] This is the only region that where agricultural productivity growth has been slow or declining. Farming is mostly done women who work in smallholder farms, as well as older populations while the unemployed youth is shunning farming. The regions suffer from poor infrastructure (roads), low input use and weak institutions.

Furthermore, Africa is threatened by climate change and population growth could make a bad situation worse.  Yet there are a lot of opportunities as well. Africa can be a breadbasket with investment in infrastructure, increased irrigation, input use, improved technology and removal of trade barriers between countries. It needs an institutional and technological revolution. There are good signs, such as the cellphone revolution, the emergence of entrepreneurial class and improved governments in some countries.

The situation in India is also disconcerting[2]: shrinking land base, dwindling water resources, climate change, smaller and smaller farms, decreasing labor productivity, and a terrible combination of malnutrition as well as obesity. Gender bias is severe problem and terrible sanitary conditions. While the country has large stocks of rice, there are deficits in pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables. Actually things could have been worse: the country has 3 success stories, the Green Revolution, the White Revolution (improvements in milk productivity) and the Cotton GMO Revolution (which doubled production). But again, the country needs institutional change and improved governance that would allow investments in sustaining resources and improving health conditions, sound regulation (e.g. taking advantage of GMO rather than banning it), and increased inclusiveness.

While India and Africa tells stories of missed opportunities, China[3] presents a relative success story, doubling of incomes, almost elimination of malnourishment and drastic improvements in food safety and security. Of course, this is far from perfect – China has a problem of depleting water resources, the safety of food can be improved, rural incomes need to rise, air quality and climate change are huge concerns and the big issue of natural resource sustainability but China’s investment in infrastructure, technology and education and increased reliance on markets have already paid off.

Latin America is another success story, North America, South America and Australia are becoming the sources of food supply globally, feeding Western Europe, Asia and the Middle East & Africa. South America, especially Brazil and Argentina, have had drastic growths in productivity, and their role as exporters have increased. Without the increases of calorie supply in Latin America, the world food situation would be much worse. Much of the improvement is due to the adoption of strategic soil conservation and genetically modified crops.

Still, there is a lot of space for improvement, agricultural productivity in Latin America[4]is relatively low compared to the US; infrastructure can and should be improved, resource management, pockets of poverty are persistent and land ownership and management structures need to be reformed in many places. The continent has taken advantage international trade but can benefit from further increased trade within the continent. One major challenge in Latin America is the improvement of human capital and training.

This overview started quite an intense 3 days of technical discussion.  On the last day, I took a short walk in ILRI and suddenly on my walk someone called my name! I turned to see and it was one of my former undergraduate students, who took my environmental economics class years ago, lived in Ethiopia for several years and has now started a company that is producing honeywine, the wine loved by Ethiopians (which is quite good). I learned a lot from him, Addis is not Ethiopia, it is beautiful but it has 90 million people many of them have less than 1 acre, but this acre is spread over small plots as they spend much of their time walking across. The current government is an improvement over the previous regime, but they are far from perfect. They do not encourage entrepreneurship, control everything and thus young and aspiring people tend to leave. The conversation with my former student provided a concrete example of the general findings discussed before.

All of this suggests that much of the aid and development efforts should be concentrated in Africa and South Asia. We agreed currently that much of the aid efforts are concentrated in projects, tailored to meet some of the perceptions of donors (be it the US or European countries) rather than the local needs and preferences. Sometimes Europeans worry that Africa would not repeat their mistakes such as relying too much on pesticide and chemicals rather than developing systems that can solve immediate problems, but that is less of problem.

The biggest challenge is that donors think in terms of projects, rather than building sustainable institutions. It would be great if Africa could have four or five research institutes with a permanent faculty and extensions that could devote their lives to solving problems. Brazil has been successful to a large extent due to their investment in EMBRAPA, a large research institute on agriculture. Africa needs something similar, so if aid resources could be divided between projects and permanent infrastructure, impacts could be greater.


[1] This is based on a talk by Dr. Willis Oluoch-Kosura.

[2] This is based on a presentation given by Professor Mahendra Dev.

[3] This is based on a presentation by Dr. Jikun Huang.

[4] This is based on a presentation by Dr. Maximo Torero.

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