06/29/2012 04:08 pm ET Updated Aug 29, 2012

To Increase Food Security, Develop the Value Chain

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

Recently President Obama announced the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The initiative's goal is to increase farmers' incomes and raise 50 million men, women, and children out of poverty over the next 10 years. Three billion dollars has already been pledged by global and African companies to create an effective model for nations around the world struggling to achieve real food security. World leaders participating in the UN's Rio +20 Summit last week in Brazil also reaffirmed their commitment to sustainable development and fighting hunger worldwide.

The tragedies that have unfolded in the Sahel highlight the urgency of funding and implementing effective food security programs. Thousands have suffered from drought. And while emergency relief is still essential to assisting vulnerable communities, governments and NGOs have the opportunity to structure relief activities in order to build resilience and move forward along the continuum from relief to stabilization to development.

I know we can achieve sustainable food security because we already have in nations around the world, including in Africa. Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau have long had representative political institutions and a market-based economy, and have significant agricultural potential, including products for export. Through the Enhancing Cashew Value Chain in the Gambia River Basin project,the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Peace Corps, NGOs, and local governments are helping thousands of farmers increase cashew output in all three countries. The goal is to move beyond subsistence into market-oriented production that raises incomes and produces wealth that can be put to use in the cashew and other sectors.

Through better seeds, improved farming practices, new post-harvest techniques, and training in business management, cashew farmers and others along the cashew "value chain" are building a globally competitive sector. Taking the value chain approach allows seed sellers, traders, processors, shipping companies, exporters and others to better appreciate how prices are set, where the opportunities exist for greater revenue, and how to position themselves to gain maximum benefit from their efforts. It is a comprehensive, community-centered approach with an eye to selling in regional and, eventually, global markets.

The Gambia River Basin cashew program is designed to help increase the incomes of at least 80,000 people in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau. The market skills developed in the cashew sector can then be transferred to other agricultural sectors in all three countries, further raising incomes and deepening the economic ties that help maintain peace and stability. As the economies grow, they will increasingly look to the U.S. for capital and other goods, increasing trade and spurring job growth in this country.

While there is a role for relief in addressing food insecurity, the only real solutions to ending hunger center on sustainable economic and social development. In Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea Bissau, and other countries in the Sahel region and across Africa, programs funded by the USDA, USAID, and other development organizations have already paid dividends to dozens of communities that now have access to more and healthier food and earn higher incomes to invest in their futures. It is critical that NGOs and governments act with urgency to expand these programs in the Sahel. We will prevent much unnecessary suffering. As important, we will help vulnerable communities develop stronger, more productive, and self-sufficient economies and societies.

Dr. Arthur B. Keys, Jr. is Founder and CEO of International Relief & Development (IRD) based in Arlington, VA. IRD implements the Enhancing Cashew Value Chain in the Gambia River Basin program in Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea Bissau for USDA.