03/21/2012 05:09 pm ET Updated May 21, 2012

Growth With Resilience: An Opportunity for African Agriculture

Many African countries are growing fast. African GDP is growing at about 6% per year and over the past decade, 6 of the world's 10 fastest grow¬ing countries were African. But this growth remains fragile.

Economic growth in low income countries has been, in part, driven by faster agricultural growth. Agricultural development is the best route to achieving economic growth that reaches the rural poor and most vulnerable. As is evident from the experience of recent years, failure to ensure universal food security not only threatens political stability, social welfare and economic growth but hampers global trade and global security.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about African agricultural development. But achieving food security in Africa will not be easy.

Africa will have to feed a population that has grown by nearly 50% by 2050 with new dietary demands, and at the same time cope with volatile food prices, shortages of good quality land and water, rising energy and fertiliser prices, and the consequences of climate change. This will require greatly increased food production in the continent especially if we are to build up reserves for climatic extremes.

If Africa is to achieve widespread, inclusive food security and in turn economic growth on a sustainable basis we will have to prioritise resilience in development strategies and programmes from the outset.

In a new report authored by the Montpellier Panel - a group of European and African agricultural experts, which I chair, we lay out a vision of agricultural growth with resilience. The report - to be presented to development experts in the UK government and the European Commission on the 21st and 22nd March - will show how to achieve agricultural development which will withstand or recover from stresses and shocks and thus underpin sustained economic growth for the poorest in sub-Saharan Africa.

The Montpellier Panel make specific recommendations around three key areas, namely resilient markets, resilient agriculture and resilient people. The Panel also calls for political leadership to achieve this paradigm shift.

Resilient markets depend on reducing food price volatility, through creating grain stores and opening up trade across Africa. Resilience also depends on greatly increasing production. We believe the answer lies in more private investments and public-private partnerships that will build better enabling environments.

The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) is working in partnership with the Ghana government in developing the 'breadbasket' of northern Ghana through strengthening locally based institutions and building links between them. AGRA has work streams around market access, innovative finance, agrodealers and seed value chains, all components of an enabling environment. Although still at an early stage, the programme has already reached some 400 agrodealers with support for start ups and training in business and management skills.

Resilient agriculture requires sustainable intensification, which in simple terms means getting more from less - on a durable basis. Farmers will have to produce more food, more agricultural products, on less land with less pesticides and fertilisers, less water and lower outputs of greenhouse gases.

Technologies such as mixed cropping, conservation farming, modern plant and animal breeding and micro-dosing need to be scaled up to reach a wider number of farmers. Micro-dosing - the application of a 6 gram mix of phosphorus and nitrogen fertiliser in a soda bottle cap to each hole before seeds are planted - is an example of the potential of technologies. To date, it has been shown to increase grain yield by some 43 to 120% in trials, reduce fertiliser use to as much as 3 to 6 times less than in Europe and North America, and increase crop water use efficiency. Had it been practiced by only a quarter of farmers in Niger in 2009 the grain shortfall that sparked the 2010 famine would have been avoided.

Resilient people need adequate nutrition and good health in the face of recurrent stresses and shocks. A key recommendation is for governments and the private sector to engage in the Scaling Up Nutrition programme that aims to greatly reduce the number of stunted children. Overall in sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of children under five who are stunted is 42% (roughly 50 million). Adequate nutrition not only prevents stunting it makes children resilient in the face of infectious diseases.

The Montpellier Panel report highlights the importance of strong political leadership if we are to achieve growth with resilience. The outstanding example of such leadership is in Ghana where agricultural GDP has risen at 5% per annum for the past 10 years and the country has already achieved the MDG of halving hunger by 2015.

At present Africa has the opportunity to build resilience as it consolidates the positive economic growth underway in the continent. This is an opportunity not only for Africa, but also for the world. The unique nexus of G8, G20 and Rio+20 summit meetings in 2012 provides a ready platform for coordinating policies, intensifying investments and agreeing concrete actions for implementing and ensuring growth with resilience.