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Olusegun Obasanjo Headshot

African Leaders Must End Hunger Crises Now

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It might surprise many who know of my life in politics and international affairs but, in my heart, I consider myself a farmer. I am very proud of my two terms as president of Nigeria. I feel privileged as well that since retirement I have been asked to mediate in conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Côte d'Ivoire, and to have lobbied world leaders to deliver on their promises to Africa on debt relief and increased aid. But few achievements give me greater pride and satisfaction than the livestock, crop and vegetable farm I started back in 1979, and where I now spend much of my time.

The farm spans hundreds of hectares of land in Ogun State, not far from Lagos, where I rear chickens, pigs and ostriches and other livestock. I built it to show my countrymen and women -- especially the young -- the huge potential of agriculture and what can be done with the land. It is, I hope, a practical demonstration of the policies I pushed in government to promote food and nutrition security and to focus on the crucial role of agriculture in fighting hunger and alleviating poverty through wealth creation.

We can point to real success in Nigeria and many countries on our continent in improving agriculture. But we still have a long way to go.

In Nigeria, the world's fifth-largest oil exporter, children and families continue to go hungry in many areas of the country. Across the continent and in many other parts of the world, millions more suffer from malnutrition. The current crisis in East Africa, where over 13 million people are affected by extreme hunger, has tragically brought this issue to the forefront.

There is, however, no reason for this immense human tragedy. Our continent has the resources and science has given us the solutions to prevent hunger crises permanently. We have the means to grow not just enough food for our needs but to produce a surplus for export, no matter how challenging the climate or weather condition.

We now have a historic opportunity to put this right. At the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa at the end of January, the continent's leaders can help lead the world in ending hunger and preventing a recurrence of the East Africa emergency ever again. The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture in Berlin provides another powerful platform to focus the efforts of the international community on this vital food security challenge.

So what do we need to see in Addis Ababa and Berlin? Africa's leaders must endorse the new Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a comprehensive blueprint drawn up by a coalition of international and African aid agencies. The Charter, already signed by Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga, sets out the practical steps that must be taken by governments to make extreme hunger crises history. AU Governments should pledge to fulfil its commitments.

These include heeding early drought warnings and setting up social safety nets for the poor. We need action, too, to protect people from rising food prices which have pushed many people into hunger. Supporting local food production, limiting the use of food export bans and judiciously and carefully tapping into emergency food reserves are just some of the ways the impact can be mitigated.

More specifically, we must ensure support at Addis and in Berlin for initiatives such as the Africa-led Productive Safety Net Programme. This programme, funded from both Africa and the West, sees cash and food transfers to millions of poor farmers in Ethiopia. By giving them a more secure and predictable income, it protects against sudden hunger crises. In exchange, they agree to take part in public works, such as road construction, which in turn help improve the agricultural output of their communities.

Another programme, run by Save the Children in partnership with local authorities in North-East Kenya, provides vouchers to pastoralist communities in areas hard-hit by recurring droughts. These vouchers can be used to buy food in local markets, giving a boost to local traders and herdsmen and women while also putting people in control of how they manage food crises. There are many similar initiatives which we can support and expand.

The truth is that science, technology, innovation and creativity are providing the tools for us to win the battle against hunger. Farmers, too, are ready to do whatever it takes to grow the crops needed to feed our world.

What is needed now is to put the products of these scientific advances, together with the necessary financial and non-financial support, into the hands of farmers. This is a challenge for all world leaders and agriculture ministers, particularly for those on the African continent.

Time is running out. Food prices keep rising and the effects of climate change continue to worsen, leading to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and bouts of severe drought. By taking action, African leaders can show the rest of the world how to end extreme hunger.

Our continent, of course, continues to need help from the international community which is why the efforts of the world's agriculture ministers in Berlin are so important. But every time I walk through the fields, I am reminded that the solution ultimately lies in our own hands and on our lands.

General Obasanjo is the former President of Nigeria and a member of the Africa Progress Panel.