Dutch Network meeting with Dr. Agnes Kalibata on Food Systems and Soil Health

On 29 November Dr. Agnes Kalibata, president of AGRA, and her team held a dialogue at the Wageningen University and Research campus, with Dutch network members from research, private sector and civil society on how to leverage each other’s strengths.

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In 2023, the African fertiliser and soil health summit as well as a stocktaking meeting on the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), will offer further opportunities for alignment and collaboration. Other opportunities for potential synergies include leadership for sustainable food systems, as well as the potential to raise African farmers’ benefits from trade and markets.

Keynote by Dr. Agnes Kalibata (AGRA).

During her address, Dr. Kalibata outlined how AGRA are working with a number of governments in Africa and other partners on national pathways for food systems transformation.

The UN Food Systems Summit was crucial in starting the conversation on the future of food systems. This discussion continued during the AGRA summit, and during the recent CoP27 (which added net-zero goals and also featured food system pavilions and a food round table). These conversations will continue at the African fertiliser and soil health summit (June 2023).

AGRA is working on the national FSS pathways with the governments of Rwanda, Ghana and Malawi. A main challenge is the coordination at national level: AGRA started to work with three ministries, for example, food links to the policy domains of as many as ten different ministries. Donor coordination is an additional challenge. The urgency of food systems transition is sensed by AGRA and in African countries like Kenya that have suffered from five years without a normal rain season. AGRA also works with AU and NEPAD on common pathways and positions, as well as food systems indicators.

AGRA advocates for better functioning markets. Since the Covid pandemic, AGRA has monitored the food and fertiliser prices (see AGRA Food Security Monitor). The fear was that closing borders would disrupt (regional) trade and spike prices, which almost came to fruition but in the end didn’t. Fertiliser prices spiked earlier this year because of the war in Ukraine, they have now begun to ease but are still 40% higher than they were previously. AGRA also developed national and regional Food balance sheets, making it visible on where food is located, as well as other key data relating to food and nutrition security.

Can Africa feed itself? AGRA says yes, provided that every farm uses quality seed and fertiliser, which calls for functional markets as well as substantial investment. In an example from Rwanda, one investing company (DSM), means a reliable market for 225,000 farmers, who start using seed and fertiliser.

Other related challenges are the infrastructure and market dynamics: the maize market in Tanzania, for example, collapsed as it was not able to deal with production volumes exceeding 2 MT/ha. The market has to work for the farmers. Countries that are doing better on the road to self-sufficiency are a/o Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Sudan. It is also noted that for several countries, wheat is not an important commodity and that some countries are now moving away from wheat imports, with cassava, African wheat and rice being used as alternatives. The opportunity for diversification is there. There is a lot of science and knowledge to build on.

On regenerative agriculture; AGRA refers to an example from the Mt Elgon area on the border of Uganda and Kenya, where poor farmers with improved seeds and fertilisers used less land but achieved three times the harvest output. This opens up space for trees. AGRA’s mission is to be sustainable and to that end, they are interested in the exchange of knowledge on sustainable land use. Their three strategy focus is seed systems that are drought resistant, government policy and leadership that opens up markets and sustainable farming.

Round Table with Dutch companies, NGOs, researchers. The meeting was attended by 20 representatives from 11 companies and organisations. These companies, NGOs, and researchers presented their proven (evidence based) models, approaches, products and tools for soil health and for food systems transformation. They reflected on the way in which Dutch stakeholders could support and inform investments (human and financial) in African food systems transformation. Several suggestions were made regarding approaches, which could be useful in the collaboration with African governments, AGRA, and other stakeholders.

Open exchange on how AGRA and Dutch stakeholders can leverage each other’s strengths.

During the meeting the value of soil health was highlighted, while AGRA and several participants stressed the importance of inorganic fertilisers in the African context. In the words of WUR professor emeritus Rudy Rabbinge, it's about an integrated approach of managing organic matter and applying external inputs. Furthermore, it's also about adding to our knowledge on soil fertility and new technology to measure quality and quantity of soil life. As a follow up, participants indicated an interest in mutual information sharing, and exploring further collaboration in the context of soil health. Both in certain countries, e.g. where NFP partners jointly explore collaboration, and for the African fertiliser and soil health summit (Senegal, June 2023).

Functional markets: AGRA started in 2006 with a focus on seed, mainly in staple crops which included a focus on the staples markets. In the next five years AGRA will add to this improved technology and access to finance. Innovative finance models look into risk sharing between farmers, input suppliers, buyers and banks. Regional trade, and the predictability of markets are important. The discussions during the meeting indicated that this may be a domain in which further connections and conversations may be continued: How could regional and global markets and trade benefit smallholder farmers? E/o. How to engage more of the private sector, as buyers and investors.

The current momentum in the follow-up of the UNFSS national pathways requires country leadership. It is suggested to support leadership with methodology on foresight and scenario planning. AGRA also advocates for African perspectives on leadership. It was noted that public financing of these pathways is a struggle, as national debts in Africa are on the rise. Participants indicated an interest to exchange updates and to explore opportunities for collaboration in the process up to the stocktaking meeting two years after the UN FSS (planned July 2023).