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G8 blind to Africa’s true needs, farmer says

by Janice Tang

Kyodo News

Zambian farmer Joyce Mwanje landed in Japan after a long journey across half the globe, leaving her husband and seven children to tend to the fields where they till the land with hand hoes to grow maize, soybeans, vegetables and other crops.

But Mwanje is not in Japan for sightseeing. Rather, she has come with the important mission of representing fellow African peasant farmers to make their voices heard by the leaders of the Group of Eight countries who will meet in Hokkaido from Monday for their annual summit.

Mwanje, 47, who heads her community’s farmers development club in the rural area of Chibobo in Serenje, central Zambia, wants to ensure that the G8 nations not only live up to their aid pledges, but also realize Africa’s true needs.

“In my village, we produce mainly staple food with occasional or no surplus sold,” Mwanje said in an interview in Tokyo. “The majority of people cultivate less than 2 hectares of rain-fed land using simple techniques and cultivation practices, and produce mainly maize, groundnuts, roots and tubers for their own consumption.”

“The problem we have is we can only use hand hoes for plowing our land. We don’t manage to have much harvest for income,” she said.

Joseph Ssuuna, secretary general of nongovernmental organization PELUM Association, accompanied Mwanje to Japan. He said aid provision is complex and flawed.

“When world leaders meet to talk about the food crisis in the world, they have to look at the means of production that people have at their disposal,” he said.

Ssuuna, whose group promotes ecological land-use management, criticized the developed nations’ emphasis on introducing new seeds and increasing the amount of fertilizers and agrochemicals in their push for the so-called Green Revolution for Africa.

He said that what is really needed to transform the lives of African farmers is access to basic farming machinery and micro-financing.

“People don’t want aid as such. People want to live meaningful lives, to earn their own living,” said Ssuuna, a 46-year-old Ugandan residing in Zambia. “Farmers want to farm, but we need to make sure that the systems and institutions that support farming are functional.”

In Mwanje’s village, where the size of the average family is eight people and agriculture has been the source of livelihood for generations, a Zambian NGO called the Green Living Movement has been promoting sustainable agriculture since 2000.

Mwanje said she and other farmers have adopted the practice of agroforestry, in which nitrogen fixing tree legumes are planted in their fields for soil fertility instead of using synthetic fertilizers. The method has helped improve her productivity and her income base, she said.

Even so, efficiency is relatively low due to a lack of basic farming machinery, electricity and irrigation — she still has to draw water from a well and waters the crops with a jerrycan, and pound harvests of maize and soybeans manually with sticks.

Each year, she harvests about 25 to 30 bags of maize, the main crop for income, at 50 kg each. Most is consumed by her family with only an average of five bags left for sale, and each bag fetches 34,000 Zambian kwachas, or approximately $10.

Ssuuna explained that although the recent surge in global food prices should in theory be an opportunity for African farmers, in places like Zambia, where crop prices are set by the Food Reserve Agency and rural farmers have poor access to open markets, the price hikes only profit the agency and middlemen traders while farmers get paid little for their produce.

Japan, to show its leadership as this year’s G8 chair, has pledged to double aid to Africa by 2012 and help double rice production on the continent as part of medium- to long-term assistance in tackling the food security issue.

But both Mwanje and Ssuuna expressed doubt about promoting rice in Africa.

“I once tried to grow rice in our field, but the harvest was not good and we didn’t get any rice grains to eat. May be water was not enough,” Mwanje said. She added that while she tried for one season because she liked rice, she never went back to growing it again.

Ssuuna noted that while consumption of rice in Africa has risen in recent years, it was partly because rice producers like Japan and other Asian countries have offloaded their large surpluses in Africa. In some cases, the dependence on rice imports have triggered food riots, such as in Sierra Leone, amid the price surges.

“What do we learn from that? If you disrupt people’s production systems and you make them dependent on other production systems for their food, you are creating a catastrophe,” he said.

“I think a more sustainable support system should focus on African indigenous crops that have already been localized and are suitable to the ecosystem in these places,” Ssuuna added.

Mwanje and Ssuuna, with the support of Japanese NGOs, will be in Hokkaido to meet Japanese and international press when the three-day G8 summit begins Monday at the Lake Toya resort.

“We are here to remind the leaders of their failure to meet commitments made in the last several G8 summits,” Ssuuna said. “It’s also important for them to know that when they make these commitments, there are so many people’s hopes and lives that now focus on them.”

“A failure to meet those commitments means they are failing so many people who do not have the voice to represent themselves in the G8, who do not have the means to change their own lives.”