Expert panellists discuss how to unlock the wealth of Africa

During an ITTO/AFF Forest Policy Day panel discussion held at the World Agroforestry Centre on 28 June 2012, keynote speaker Mafa Chipeta said “A prosperous future for Africa is best achieved through ensuring greater productivity of its agriculture and of its trees and forests.” He outlined how food, fibre and fuel, which are all pivotal to development, depend on the trees and forests of Africa making a better contribution alongside agriculture. “What we need,” he argued, “are methods to stop African governments, businesses and citizens from pleading incapacity and instead embrace the challenge of sustainable intensification of forestry and agriculture for the ‘three Fs (Food, Fibre, Fuel)’”.

He stressed that poor productivity explains Africa’s pervasive poverty. As a result, “although the people in Africa make up around 15% of the world’s population, the continent’s contribution to global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is only about 2%,” explained Chipeta. In addition to this, the fact that total global trade of Africa stood at 8 % in the 1960s but is currently only around 1.5 %, proves that the continent is in a steady economic decline despite its vast natural resources.

According to Mafa, this worrying trend can be halted once the region’s governments along with stakeholders commit to procedures that will make Africa a dominant player in the production of food, fibre and fuel. Higher productivity of agriculture will reduce the amount of forest and woodland that must be cleared to feed Africa; higher productivity of the trees and forests themselves will mean more products without degrading extensive areas. He drew attention to the fact that while in the 1960s, global crop yield was experiencing 3.2 % annual growth rate (which dropped to 1.5% by 2000), the crop yield in Africa did not experience any growth. Indeed, cereal yields in Africa have stayed between 1 and 1.5 tons/ha for the last 70 years, while other developing countries now average 3.5 tons/ha and 5 tons/ha.

To address the many factors keeping African yields so low, IUFRO President and panellist Niels Elers Koch said IUFRO has implemented its 2010-2014 strategy by creating six new task forces of which three deal precisely with how to sustainably maximize the production of food, fibre and fuel. These tasks forces are forests for people, resources for the future and forest bio-energy.

However, the president stopped short of Mafa’s call for strategies that bolster the ambition and confidence of Africans to strive towards a prosperous future rather than its current situation of drifting with the wind and accepting mere survival.

A sure strategy out of its perplexing situation of being resource rich but economically poor is for Africa to develop an economic understanding of the environment, claimed Mafa. “We must believe that real economic growth is possible and that the sustainable use of forests and trees can contribute to this,” he said.

For a sustainable economic growth, Ravi Prabhu, Deputy Director General, Research at the World Agroforestry Centre added that research projects in Africa must work towards the integration of food and fuel systems.

The expert panel agreed that maybe in the past, the trees were sourced irresponsibly but that this should not impede large profits that could still be realised from the responsible use of forests. Robert Nasi, Director, CRP6, qualified this sentiment by saying that currently, 95% of a tree is wasted between the harvesting and production of furniture but with more investment in to the sector, fewer trees would be cut.

In Mafa’s opinion, fossil fuel power generation is an investment opportunity that can energize general economic development while also supporting the agricultural and forestry agenda. He could not see why Africa is allowed to export but indirectly prohibited from using fossil fuels for power and industry.

In his controversial proposal, Mafa suggested that profits from a thriving fossil fuel power sector could be used to finance agricultural productivity, afforestation and biofuels development. He said however, such an idea can only pass through parliaments if African scientists make a compelling case to policy makers, based on unimpeachable and actionable research.

Without such research, panellists agreed that the negative impacts of climate change will continue to have major effects on ecosystems and agricultural systems found all over the African continent. “In early IIASA/FAO modelling findings, projections are that Africa’s current 1.1 billion hectares of land with annual growing periods of less than 120 days may expand by 50-90 million hectares by 2080,” concluded Mafa.'

Christopher Mesiku

Chris Mesiku is a science communicator volunteering at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. In the last 5 years, he has worked as a communicator for various scientific institutions. He holds a Bachelor of Science, Graduate Diploma in Science Communication (ANU) and a Masters in Philosophy of Science (UQ).

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