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How to Help the African Dust Bowl

SEATTLE – Picture a small farm under a blazing hot sky. An intense drought is afflicting the surrounding region, prospects for the next harvest are bleak, and the financial system lacks the capacity to provide the loans farmers need to get by. This scenario describes today’s southern Africa, which is in the grips of an epic drought. As it happens, it also describes eastern Nebraska in the “Dust Bowl” years of the early 1930s – a period through which my own family lived.

My father, Ralph Raikes, was the first in his family to graduate from college. After working for Standard Oil in California, he stopped by his parents’ farm on his way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he planned to pursue graduate studies at MIT. He never made it. He had to stay in Nebraska and help my grandfather save the family farm from the banks, which had already repossessed one-third of the land.

The most important change my father made was in his mindset: he came to think of the farm not as a subsistence operation, but as a family business. He turned to the University of Nebraska, where he had received his undergraduate degree, and acquired hybrid corn and other improved seeds that the university was developing. Then he tracked inputs and weather conditions, which was rarely done at that time.

My father realized that he couldn’t go it alone, and that he would need better access to financing. So he helped guide – first as a customer, and later as an adviser and director – Farm Credit, a national banking cooperative network, in its efforts to help local farmers weather the Dust Bowl years. He also helped found the Nebraska Farm Business Association, which aggregated the data that he and his peers collected, so that they could determine best practices. And he worked together with my mother, Alice, who ran the family poultry business.

Farm Credit and the University of Nebraska’s labs and greenhouses emerged out of United States government programs that had been created to improve the agriculture sector’s performance. That sector was under water in 1933; with one-quarter of the population living on farms at the time, more investment was needed. That year, Congress passed the first “farm bill,” the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which boosted investment in the rural economy and helped lift farm income by 50% within two years. Federal farm programs treated farming as a business enterprise, enabling businessmen like my father to prosper.

Eighty years later, African farmers need to make the same switch, by treating their subsistence operations as family-owned enterprises. And, like my father during the Dust Bowl years, they have novel means at their disposal: a wide range of new seeds and other technologies have been developed for African family farms – those with 4-5 acres or less – to use in the field. In October, a group of scientists received the World Food Prize for producing and disseminating a sweet potato variety that adds vitamin A to Sub-Saharan Africans’ diets, and other new seed varieties are helping farmers survive the harvest-crushing drought.

But, as a recent report from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) makes clear, government investment must follow the science. Agriculture comprises almost two-thirds of Sub-Saharan Africa’s workforce, and in 2003 the African Union called for countries to increase their investment in the sector to an ambitious 10% of all government spending. Only 13 countries answered that call, but their investments – in research and development, services that help farmers take advantage of new research findings, credit and financing initiatives, commodity exchanges, and other marketing efforts – have already paid dividends. Those 13 countries have experienced marked improvements in agricultural production, per capita GDP, and nutrition.

Government investment paves the way for private-sector investment, and it could be a game-changer for African farmers, who have operated at subsistence levels for far too long. Only about 6% of rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa receive loans from financial institutions. Moreover, almost two-thirds of African farmland soil is missing key nutrients, and many farmers lack the technical knowledge and resources to restore their land’s fertility, leaving them unable to take full advantage of new technologies. African farmers growing new crop varieties are increasing their yields by only 28%, compared to 88% for farmers in Asia.

My parents made certain that all five of their children graduated from college. Like them, farmers everywhere want to ensure that their children lead healthy, prosperous lives; and they all recognize the importance of education. The farmers I have met around the world often just want to sell enough extra produce to pay their health bills and put their children through school. They take advantage of opportunities when they arise, and they position their children to reap larger profits in the future.

One hopes that an American story of economic progress, like that of my family, will soon be an African story, too. With so many new innovations becoming available, Africa’s family farmers need their governments to invest in their future. If they do, that future will look much better than today’s dusty and desperate reality.