05/18/2012 12:23 pm ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

From Hand-outs to Handshakes: The Time Has Come for the African Farmer

Considering that it boasts 60 percent of the world's potentially available cropland and will represent 40 percent of the global workforce by 2040, it's hard to believe that Africa is not yet the world's breadbasket. A continent that 50 years ago was a net exporter of food now needs to import food to feed its growing population. The good news is that this unacceptable reality is already changing. Recovery is underway in Africa's farming sector -- representing a wider economic transformation across the region and at the same time a unique experiment that promises to create a new growth-oriented paradigm for investment, not to mention a better quality of life for millions of Africans.

First, let's look at the big picture. From an admittedly low base, Africa's economies are beginning to build traction: six of the world's ten fastest-growing economies in the past decade were from sub-Saharan Africa, and in this decade, that number climbs to seven. Foreign direct investment significantly overtook aid and remittances from migrants living abroad in the past decade -- and this will continue to grow despite the volatile global economic environment. The dynamism generated by this transformation means that the prospects for investors doing business in the sub-Saharan region are stronger than in any other developing region.

The fact that these days you are more likely to attend an investor conference than a donor conference in Africa underscores the energy by which a new generation of leaders -- from government, business and civil society -- are responding to Africa's development challenges. Handouts have been replaced by handshakes as Africa and its leadership have become equal partners in control of their own destiny.

This multi-stakeholder approach reflects the increasing maturity of the region, not to mention the quiet efficiency that has marked its development in recent years. In all but a few notable cases, African countries have strengthened their democratic institutions, burnished relations with business and strengthened the rule of law. Meanwhile, infrastructural improvements continue to attract a new wave of foreign investors.

These reforms are needed to address the looming challenges. With 100 million people expected to enter the workforce between now and the end of the decade, the problems faced today -- food insecurity, fiscal crises and unemployment -- look like curtain-raisers for the social unrest and hardship that the future holds unless they are swiftly and effectively addressed today.

Increased awareness and knowledge is needed to ensure that these multistakeholder partnerships are truly win-win: not only good for business or increasing GDP, but also for lifting the spectre of debilitating hunger and poverty.

Agriculture is at the vanguard of this response. Despite rapid urbanization, 70 percent of Africans still live in rural areas; improving productivity closer to international levels is central to the continent's future. Just as Brazil and China realized several decades ago, African agriculture can't do it alone. A new openness towards public-private partnerships is essential to establish new opportunities for African smallholder farmers, businesses and tax-payers.

Only last week, African leaders joined the World Economic Forum at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa to roll out an African-led initiative called "Grow Africa," designed to empower best practices in agricultural investments in alignment with national strategies. This initiative attracted more than 100 leading companies from across Africa and globally, fostering new relationships, establishing a stronger sense of shared commitment and fuelling much needed investments aimed at job creation and food production across the entire value chain.

The response has been overwhelming. African economies are already benefiting from such public-private partnerships, lifting people out of poverty, improving nutrition, creating new jobs and helping local producers to broaden the scope of their economic activities. Rather than growing food for export, only to re-import it in a processed form as is so often the case today, African producers are now directly capturing more value from their own products. Young people are even becoming more enthused to once again take up farming, using land that was previously left fallow. The seven countries currently participating in Grow Africa aim to accelerate these positive trends even further.

The time has come for the African farmer. The time has come to turn hunger into an opportunity and lift millions of people into a living wage, enabling Africans to reap the benefits of their own natural wealth. Grow Africa has not only inspired African leaders and the business community, but also it has energized the international community. This weekend, at the annual Camp David summit, the G8 group of nations' leaders will discuss food security -- this meeting will take place a day after African leaders and business leaders convene in Washington DC to announce the latest tranche of investments. Grow Africa will not rest here. We want it to accelerate investment across the whole of Africa, and serve as a template for inclusive growth in the region and beyond. With destiny in their own hands, Africa's leaders will not let this opportunity pass.