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Minister of State Joe Costello’s address to the ‘Scaling Up Agriculture’ Seminar

Irish Aid, Minister Joe Costello, Speech, Africa, 2012

Minister Coveney, Ambassadors, colleagues, it is a great pleasure for me to participate today in this important seminar on ‘Scaling Up Agriculture, Sharing Challenges and Experiences of Modernising Agriculture in Ireland and Africa.’

I am especially pleased that Minister Coveney is able to join us today in what is one of the key public events which mark the annual celebration of Africa Day. My Department continues to work closely with the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine on many aspects of development. The Minister has referred to the recently launched Africa Agri-Food Development Fund, which involves further collaboration between our two Departments.

The title of today’s seminar allows us to reflect on the challenges which face African agriculture and to draw on some of the practical steps that we have taken in Ireland. It is a timely and important discussion,

I am also particularly pleased to share the podium today with three speakers from Africa. We are here to listen to your views and to reflect on them, with a sincere commitment to respond wherever possible. 

Scaling up Agriculture in Africa is not a new subject, it has been the focus of discussion by many of the World’s leading agronomists for decades, and yet so much more remains to be done.

We know, from years of experience, that scaling up agriculture involves more than an increase in agricultural productivity. The science exists to increase yields, yet the Green Revolution which transformed Asia has failed to develop Africa.

Agriculture in Africa involves an increase in productivity, a focus on women farmers, the development of value chains which ensure farmers receive a fair payment for their crops and produce, and the development of markets which add value to that produce, ensuring jobs in processing. Perhaps most importantly, we need an agricultural sector that meets the nutritional needs of the people. This will involve supporting diversification to nutritious crops, rather than an exclusive focus on staples, and support to fruit and vegetable cultivation and biofortification.

In essence, we need to develop an agri-food sector in Africa, a holistic approach where many players work together to overcome the constraints that lead to under-nutrition and rural poverty across the continent.

The challenge involves a role for African governments to provide leadership, for banks to provide affordable credit, for development partners including donors and NGOs to fund innovation and technical expertise.

It also, very importantly, involves a lead role for the private sector.

In Ireland, we have developed from a nation of smallholder farmers. I grew up in rural Ireland and during my visits to both Ethiopia and Malawi earlier this year, I was able to personally identify with many of the challenges which rural smallholders in these countries face.

I propose to take a few moments to highlight some of the activities supported by Irish Aid in relation to agriculture. These activities are part of the response, but need to be complemented by the other players if we are to achieve an end to hunger in Africa and an increase in agricultural production that allows rural producers the opportunity to develop beyond subsistence.

In Irish Aid, we support many initiatives which aim to help smallholders, especially women, to earn a living wage from farming and to produce more nutritious crops. Many smallholder farmers don’t have access to either the inputs or knowledge to increase their yields. In addition, they are increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change, including unpredictable weather patterns and more severe weather events.

In many parts of Africa, where women farmers do not own their land, there is a disincentive to invest in the value of their farm holdings.  Yet up to 80% of all agricultural produce in Africa is produced by smallholder farmers, many of them women farmers.

Women farmers also experience difficulty in accessing credit. No farmer can survive without credit, as agriculture is a seasonal business. You have to borrow at sowing time and repay at harvest time. Without credit you cannot farm.

During my recent visit to Malawi, I saw how Irish Aid’s support to a programme to sustainably increase agricultural productivity has helped to protect 4.6 million people from hunger over the last six years. This was achieved through supporting smallholder farmers to diversify to more nutritious crops such as groundnuts and potatoes, and to more sustainable farming practices such as conservation farming and intercropping with trees. Partnerships with the private sector were critical to this success.

For example, Irish Aid worked with the Malawi Seed Alliance to ensure that smallholder farmers could access certified groundnut seed. This effectively revived the groundnut industry in Malawi, which had previously collapsed.

Irish Aid also supported a joint project with the International Potato Centre and Universal Foods – a food processing company. This programme included the breeding of potato seed suitable for crisp-making, effectively creating a new and guaranteed market for smallholder potato growers.

In Irish Aid, we have supported sector plans for education, health and justice, amongst others, with considerable success. However success in the agriculture sector has only come with the inclusion of the private sector. Farmers, after all, are part of the private sector themselves. They choose what to grow and in poor countries are forced to take a very conservative approach to managing risk. This often prevents farmers from adopting new innovations on their farms, as the risk of a failed crop is simply too high.

In Ireland, we know how to respond to opportunities provided by the market. We know how to manage resources to maximise returns. We have developed the knowhow and we have been able to sustain these yields while maintaining an environmentally clean production cycle.

New partnerships are required to scale up agriculture in Africa.

The Africa Agri-Food Development Fund is a pilot programme with the potential to greatly complement the work that Irish Aid is doing. An Assessment Mission recently visited Kenya and Tanzania in April and has prepared a report which will be shortly presented to the Irish Agri-Food companies.

The report recommends involvement by the Irish private sector in Africa. This may start with trade, which we hope will lead to investment. Buyers will create markets, allowing farmers to sell produce at more predictable and fair prices.

This approach is in line with the recommendations of the Hunger Task Force as it builds on our support for smallholder farmers and a value chain development approach.

In Ireland, we have a history of developing smallholder farmers through cooperatives, making them part owners and ultimately winners in the development of the food sector.

The private sector can create jobs. In Africa, with the network of extended families, if you create a hundred stable jobs, you can change a thousand lives forever.

Education Sector

Turning for a moment from the private sector to the education sector, I would also like to note that today’s seminar also provides an excellent opportunity for the academic community in Ireland and Africa to explore areas of mutual concern, to share their experience and to exchange knowledge in the critical area of agriculture and sustainable development.

In recognition of the fact that the higher education sector has a key role to play in bringing knowledge of what works to global development challenges, Irish Aid established in 2007 a ‘Programme of Strategic Cooperation’, which has been successful in facilitating the establishment of eight partnerships between higher education institutes in Ireland and Africa.  One of the current projects is the TIDI programme here in Trinity which has been instrumental in bringing together the academic community from across a wide range of disciplines to coordinate their collective efforts to address development challenges.  I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the role of TIDI in organising today’s seminar.

The programme is managed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) in close cooperation with Irish Aid.  I would like to acknowledge our appreciation of the key role that the HEA have played in managing the programme and pay tribute to their unstinting commitment to excellence in research and learning.

Today I am pleased to announce that I have approved €4.8 million for a further seven programmes under the Transition Phase of the Programme of Strategic Cooperation.  The programmes involve seven Irish higher education institutions working in partnership with institutions in five of Irish Aid’s programme Countries - Malawi, Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

These programmes will have a strong focus on hunger, agriculture, nutrition, health and education – all priorities for the Government’s development cooperation programme.  Each will contribute to the body of research and evidence in these important areas including sustainable agriculture – the topic of our deliberations today.  

Of course, ultimately the real challenge is making sure that this knowledge and learning informs policy and practice in order to deliver benefits for poor people. This Conference is an excellent example of what can be achieved when we bring together our collective experience and learning, and I wish you well in your discussions today.