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27 - 05 March 2008 
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Africa Needs an Agricultural Think Tank

There is currently much talk and many fledgling efforts to give more attention to the development of African agriculture. Among the reasons for this are African agriculture’s many challenges and an attempt  to turn Africa from remaining the one continent in which many countries cannot feed themselves. It also emanates from the growing awareness that agriculture presents the best hope for Africa to foster significant economic growth and to become a more significant player in world trade.

Farmers are central players in the efforts to rejuvenate African agriculture although paradoxically, they often are not accorded their due importance. Governments, local and international NGOs, universities, private companies and global organisations like the FAO, World Bank and many others all play various important support roles.

Another necessary kind of support organization is that of the think tank. Many of the agricultural support organizations I have mentioned incorporate some think tank functions, but usually as a small, incidental part of their work. Their think tank function may be mainly to support the lobbying for an organization’s particular point of view or interests, rather than seek to be neutral or objective.

I have in mind an agricultural think tank in the sense of an entity that is totally dedicated to providing the intellectual under-pinning to African agricultural issues. Such a think tank would be solely dedicated to functions such as compiling agricultural information; critiquing various points of view with independent research, surveys, analysis and commentary; providing independent advice and  related functions.

The independence of such an Africa-dedicated agricultural think tank would be a key requirement for it to add anything new to the deliberations of the continent’s farming issues. Such a think tank must be able to ask any questions about Africa’s agricultural direction without worrying about whether that will upset powerful agro-interests, governments, the private sector or NGOs. The think tank must be free and independent enough to boldly publish conclusions based on rigorous inquiry even if it goes against the prevailing wisdom and is considered politically incorrect.

The only “ideology” such a think tank must allow itself to be beholden to is to be un-apologetically and vociferously pro-Africa. It would welcome the support and participation of all the many global players who wish Africa well and have much to contribute to its agricultural development, but it must be a truly African initiative in conception, orientation and operation.

It will not do for such a think tank to merely have the word “Africa” in its name and yet only have the Africans as window-dressers, decorations or bit players. This is unfortunately the case with far too many African-oriented agricultural initiatives. The reasons for this are many. Among them are Africa’s failure to harness its own wealth for productive purposes, making ourselves falsely believe “there is no money.” Yet sometimes the problem is not an absence of resources, but our failure to make priorities of those things that will enrich and empower us in the long term.

Funding is a perennial problem, especially for an entity whose main function is to generate ideas, but that may find it difficult to generate income. Although this is a huge challenge to the creation of such a think tank, its viability and  independence, it is not insurmountable. Many African organizations have given up being creative about meeting these challenges, resulting in dependency  on various donors, almost always non-African.

Part of the work of creating such a think tank would be to carefully study the models of endowment funding of similar organizations and universities in the US for instance, and see whether they could be modified to the African situation. The think tank would also need to think about providing advisory services whose quality and relevance private business, NGOs and governments would be willing to pay for.

Donations per se are not necessarily a problem, but dependence on them is, and is one reason why despite the multiplicity of agricultural NGOs across the continent, they are often weak and ineffective in advocating the African agenda. New and innovative approaches to raising funds are required, and where donors still feature, they must  merely be one of several sources of income and support. 

Let me give some examples of some currently missing functions such a think tank could provide. One would be to provide a neutral debating platform for the sometimes opposing ideas about how best to move Africa’s agriculture forward. At the moment we have advocates of different agricultural points of view shouting at each other rather than conducting civil and intellectual discussions about the issues and their differences. Another function would be to monitor developments in other continents and in the world in general. It would analyse what crops various regions of Africa might concentrate on, and which ones they should be thinking about giving up, for example. How to help farmers add value to their produce rather than merely sell it as raw materials could be a dedicated area of concentration. It would study short term and long term global trends to do with trade, climate change and customer preferences, among others, to make recommendations to African agriculture about how to stay competitive.

It could objectively analyse issues such as the risks and opportunities of biofuel production, or of the uptake of genetically modified crops. The think tank would be able to provide knowledge-based support to African governments during complicated trade negotiations like the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) with the EU that many African governments have been negotiating and signing. A widely made observation during the negotiations was how poorly and technically equipped for them most African governments were.  

An independent African agricultural think tank would analyse research findings and recommendations made to Africa through an African prism. Far too often, agricultural projects and other initiatives have failed because their conception and implementation were entirely in the hands of whichever foreign donor funded it. The African participation has often been peripheral, with the basic ethos of such initiatives being “we are doing this project for you poor, helpless Africans; please gratefully stand aside while we save you.” We are not expected to be the drivers, but merely passengers.

I am not at all suggesting that this has been because of some elaborate anti-African conspiracy. On the contrary, this situation obtains because we (Africans) have often not been pro-active enough about taking charge of our own affairs, including in agriculture. It is now time to go beyond moaning and groaning about being side-lined in various non-African conceived projects on our own soil, to conceiving and implementing our own.    

A good start to efforts to have Africa take charge of its own agricultural development would be the institution of such an independent think tank. I would like to challenge all those who agree on the importance of an African-engendered, controlled and oriented intellectual support to the continent’s agricultural development to join and support this effort.

By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

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