09/14/2010 01:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Green Revolution Growing in West Africa

Some say that optimists are nostalgic about the future. I recently got a glimpse of the future on a visit to West Africa, and have come home more optimistic than ever about Africa's green revolution.

I began in Mali, a desperately poor, landlocked nation of some 13 million people, 75 percent of whom farm small plots, mostly in the Niger River delta.

Mali's government is working hard to lift the quality of life for its citizens. In roughly a decade, extreme poverty in Mali dropped from 86 to 51 percent. A large portion of this decrease, especially the last five years, was a result of rising agricultural productivity that accompanied dramatic reductions in rural poverty. Thanks to the efforts of a broad-based team -- government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, civil society, and farmers themselves -- a host of initiatives are taking root that are improving the lives of farmers across the country.

I saw this for myself at flourishing demonstration plots in Sanankoroba and Dialakoroba, where farmers are learning about new seed varieties and tools that increase productivity. The government of Mali, which devotes roughly 13 percent of the national budget to agriculture, is investing in these plots because it knows that for rural farmers, seeing is believing: A hybrid seed planted next to an ordinary seed will produce a plant that is bigger and stronger and the yields from the demonstration plots are two to five times more than traditional harvests.

I met with farmers, women and men of all ages, who proudly described their successful efforts to get more from the soil. Some told me how they are boosting their yields by "micro-dosing" fertilizer -- that is, applying a small amount of fertilizer directly to the base of the plant. Many farmers cannot afford to spread fertilizer over their fields, and micro-dosing makes it more affordable and environmentally sustainable.

Much of this encouraging progress has been accelerated by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which aims to catalyze investments and cooperation to fuel agricultural productivity. I was moved by the words of Strive Masiyiwa, an AGRA board member and prominent African executive, who noted that in a year when Mali is celebrating its 50th anniversary of independence, Africans are reminded of the contributions many of their fathers made to lead the revolution for freedom. Today, Strive said, his generation is called to lead a different kind of revolution -- one that will not only feed the continent, but also deliver prosperity and growth.

After Mali, I travelled to Ghana where AGRA hosted a major agricultural forum -- the first time this meeting was held in Africa. The sense of African ownership was palpable. As a panelist, I was struck by the scope and caliber of the participants -- political leaders, ministers, parliamentarians, bankers, business leaders, donors, and farmers' organizations, all focused on transforming agriculture in their countries, all recognizing that growth is happening and that investments work, all acknowledging that success depends on everyone playing their part.

The mood in Ghana was full of optimism, determination, and a desire to make history. As AGRA board chair Kofi Annan said in his closing remarks to the forum, "We are finally getting the message across. Agriculture pays. Agriculture is a business. And we are ready to run it as one for millions of smallholder farmers."

To be sure, this won't happen overnight. There is still much to do. Sustained commitment from national governments, continued investments, and strong support for organizations like AGRA, as well as multilateral initiatives like the Global Agricultural and Food Security Program, is essential for success.

Flying home, as I looked out the window to the rich, beautiful land below, I felt more optimistic than ever that the green revolution Africa wants for itself is possible.