Japan’s international aid took a back seat in 2011 as the nation was besieged by natural and man-made disasters, a historically strong yen and political turmoil that unseated yet another prime minister.

In April, Tokyo was forced to trim about 10 percent from its large official development assistance budget and spend the ¥50 billion on reconstruction efforts. But one field in which ODA managed to make progress and gain international recognition was Japan’s innovative approach to developing arid land and boosting crop production in Africa.

The Japanese are looking to upgrade Mozambique’s port and railroad infrastructure to make it easier for farmers to export” its new soybean crop, Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates said in a report submitted to the Group of 20 summit in France in November.

The software tycoon was referring to the pioneering approach known as “triangular cooperation,” where two countries join hands to help develop a third.

In poverty-stricken Mozambique, Japan is working with Brazil to help farmers grow soybeans and other crops under a joint program named ProSavana. The program aims to boost crop production in the African savanna to the point where the country can feed itself. Ultimately, the area would be transformed into a harvest belt over decades and allow Mozambique to turn itself into a food exporter.

“We believe it is important to secure food safety of the entire globe,” Marco Farani, director of the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation, said in a speech in December at the Japan International Cooperation Agency’s headquarters in Tokyo.

“The project is about conquering a new frontier” and revolutionizing the agriculture in Africa, Farani said.

As Gates touches on in a section of his report titled “Forging Innovative Partnerships,” the roots of the venture in Mozambique date back 30 years to when Japan agreed with Brazil to transform its savanna into fertile land.

After signing the bilateral agreement in 1979, Tokyo dispatched agricultural experts and provided financial assistance to Brazil. The infertile land once called “cerrado” (inaccessible land) by local residents was quickly turned into a productive and profitable farming region, helping Brazil rise to its position today as the world’s largest food exporter.

Having a major crop producer in the Southern Hemisphere also helped stabilize year-round production and the price index for crops on the market.

Now Japan is trying for an encore by taking its knowhow to other parts of the world.

The triangular cooperation plan to help Mozambique was agreed to during talks in 2009 between then Prime Minister Taro Aso and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva on the sidelines of that July’s Group of Eight summit in L’Aquila, Italy.

Brazilian technicians today are known to possess world-leading expertise on tropical agriculture, and the state-owned Brazilian Agricultural Research Corp. (Embrapa) creates soybean plants adaptable to Mozambique’s acidic soil.

Brazilian technicians have been dispatched to Mozambican cities and are assisting research and development activities as well as the growth of small companies and farmers in the region. Making the effort easier is the fact that the two countries share a language: Portuguese.

“We wanted to take our experiences and produce similar results in Africa,” Farani said of Brazil’s goals for the project.

According to JICA, about 70 percent of Mozambique’s roughly 800,000 sq. km of land is in the Guinea savanna area. The end of a 17-year civil war in 1992 has helped the country’s grain production double in the past decade, but Mozambique still suffers from a lack of strategic farming capabilities and depends on imports to feed its people.

The impoverished country has a lot of the potential, however. The World Bank said in a 2009 report that the Guinea savanna zone covers about 600 million hectares, of which about 400 million can be used for agriculture.

Farani said developing Brazil’s cerrado region helped it become a superpower in farm exports. But there is more than double the amount of arable land in Mozambique, which has the potential to cultivate not just soybeans but rice, wheat, corn and cotton as well.

Having Mozambique grow into a food exporter will be a game-changer that could have a radical impact on the global food supply, Farani explained.

Another dimension of the ProSavana venture being praised is the nature of how Brazil, considered an emerging economy, is stepping up as a key contributor to global development.

Speaking at a forum on aid effectiveness in South Korea in November, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged the potential of the new approach Japan is taking with Brazil in Africa.

“Brazil and Japan are partnering with Mozambique, whose climate and soil condition are similar to Brazil’s, to expand its soybean crop,” Clinton said. “Just as traditional donors can work smarter and do better, so can others as well. We welcome the emerging economies that are embracing the responsibility to help solve shared challenges.”

The Brazilian side also appears ready to share the burden as a major global player.

“As a country, Brazil feels the moral responsibility to contribute to international issues” through international aid programs, Farani said in his speech.

Kenzo Oshima, adviser to the president of JICA, has high hopes for the venture with Brazil as ProSavana’s reputation spreads overseas. The program is also likely to be a hot topic at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012, which is set to take place in Rio de Janeiro.

In fact, African countries other than Mozambique are already showing interest in launching similar projects. In October, African representatives and ambassadors in Tokyo gathered at a lecture organized by JICA that demonstrated the scope and aims of the ProSavana program in Mozambique.

“It may require 10 to 20 years for us to achieve some results” in Mozambique, Oshima, the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, said. “But once we get there, we could expand the project to other parts of Africa.”

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