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Brazil Helps African Farmers Grow Food for Africa

Accra, Ghana — It is no coincidence that a neighbor of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa here is Embrapa, the Brazilian agricultural research corporation. For Embrapa was one of the main players engineering the green revolution in Brazil.

Embrapa was created in 1973 with a four-headed mission: guarantee food supply to Brazil’s teeming cities, where most of the country’s poor people live; help develop the rural areas; preserve Brazil’s natural resources; and produce a sufficient surplus of food for export. Its signature achievement so far has been developing the technology to bring vast stretches of savanna land, known as the Cerrado, into production; converting it from bush wasteland to fertile fields. Agricultural researchers adapted sets of plants and animals to thrive in tropical conditions. It also introduced farming practices, management and mechanization to the region. The Cerrado, benefiting above all from innovative soil research, is now a verdant blanket of crops.

Since then, Brazil has become a major force on world agricultural markets, particularly in soybeans, and it has made advances in corralling domestic hunger. Brazil’s grain and cereal production has increased four-fold. The principal scientists and administrators in developing the Cerrado won the 2006 World Food Prize. Norman Borlaug, the father of the original Green Revolution and founder of the prize, hailed the work of Embrapa as “one of the great achievements of agricultural science in the 20th century, which has transformed a wasteland into one of the most productive agricultural areas in the world.”

Can Brazil do the same for Africa in the 21st century?

 

“The opportunities here are really interesting; the opportunity to grow food for Africa and the world is huge,” says Jose Luiz Bellini Leite, the agribusiness coordinator of Embrapa in its Accra, Ghana, office. “Africa has a lot of land with low production. So you can get big increases.”

Embrapa came to Accra in 2006, and when it opened its office in the compound it now shares with AGRA, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was on hand for the inauguration. It was a symbol of South-South cooperation, he said, with Brazil bringing its technology and research to what is seen as agriculture’s final frontier. Embrapa, Leite tells me, is a component of Brazil’s foreign policy.

“Our vision,” he says, “is to make Brazil’s agriculture technology available to Africa.”

In Africa, Embrapa’s scientists are exploring soil and geological conditions that are similar to Brazil’s. After all, Leite points out, under the Pangaea construct the eastern hump of Brazil fit into the indented bend of West Africa before the earth’s continents split apart.

Embrapa has begun working with farmers in the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola. Scientists are bringing technology and experience from the Cerrado to larger tracks of land in those countries that have been underused. If successful there, Embrapa plans to expand to other savanna regions on the continent.

In Mali, Embrapa is testing new varieties of cotton. In Senegal it is working on rice. In Ghana, it is pursuing cassava and soybean projects. Wherever it goes in Africa, Embrapa assists local research centers and tries to link them to farmers, in essence extending the reach of its agriculture extension service across the Atlantic. In opening up the Cerrado, Brazil gained experience in matching the technology and production methods in its existing agriculture areas to the challenges of the new land.

“The two keys are the production value chain and research centers,” Leite says. “In Africa, the distance between research and production is very far.”

Embrapa’s work in Africa is complementing the ambitions of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which was founded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, and the goals of the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative. All these efforts are seeking to boost the production of smallholder farmers and to strengthen the entire agriculture value chain from soil and seed research to the markets for improved harvests.

Because of its potential to boost food production after decades of neglect, Africa is attracting the attention of countries around the world. Much of the interest is coming from non-traditional sources of development aid, particularly countries like China, India, and Saudi Arabia, which are facing their own agriculture limitations as pressure mounts on their land and water. Their interest in Africa, it is thought, is to use the continent’s soil and water to grow food for their own people, not for Africans.

Leite says Brazil’s interest in Africa is not to take food out but to put Brazilian business in. The opening up of the Cerrado was a boon to Brazil’s agribusiness.

“Thirty years ago, we were a very poor country,” Leite says. “The emergency of Brazil comes from the fields; it comes from agribusiness.”

Embrapa believes there’s great commercial potential in helping African farmers grow as much food as possible. That stands in contrast to the old-style thinking of some sections of the U.S. agriculture industry, which see Africa as mainly a repository for U.S. grown food.

“Technology has a shelf life. If we don’t bring it to Africa, others will,” Leite says. “Well, when you bring technology, you bring business. China is working in Africa, bringing seeds and technology to Africa.

“Better,” he laughs, “that Brazil brings them.”

Roger Thurow’s blog post appears courtesy of the Global Food for Thought blog. Thurow, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, is a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

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