Sustainable intensification in aggregate: Phase 2 of Kofi Annan’s uniquely African green revolution

Sustainable intensification in aggregate: Phase 2 of Kofi Annan’s uniquely African green revolution


July 24 to 26, 2023, in Rome, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres will convene a U.N. Food Systems Stocktaking Moment, the first global follow-up to the 2021 Food Systems Summit. The event will provide opportunities for nations to review commitments made during the summit and share success stories and evidence of transformation. Africa will likely be in the spotlight in the search for progress in ending hunger, improving food security, and building resilience in the face of climate change.

Almost two decades ago, on the fringes of an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, delivered a clarion call to action on ending hunger in Africa:

“We are here together to discuss one of the most serious problems on earth: the plague of hunger that has blighted hundreds of millions of African lives—and will continue to do so unless we act with greater purpose and urgency.”

In his Addis Ababa speech, delivered on July 5, 2004, Annan noted the vulnerability of African small-holder farmers to climate shocks and declining soil fertility, acknowledging that the scientific breakthroughs obtained in Asia could not be directly applied to Africa. Drawing on the work of the U.N Millennium Project Hunger Task Force, Annan called for a different kind of green revolution—a more holistic approach that would include small-scale irrigation, improvements in soil health, and complementary investments in infrastructure and social safety nets.

“Let us generate a uniquely African green revolution—a revolution that is long overdue, a revolution that would help the continent in its quest for dignity and peace.”

The “World Development Report 2008,” drawing on statistics up to 2004, noted that Asia’s green revolution breakthrough in cereals had not reached sub-Saharan Africa. This lagging performance was attributed to several factors including high dependence on rainfed agriculture, wide diversity of staple food crops, poor infrastructure, policy discrimination against agriculture, and low public and private investment. Fertilizer use—a key contributor to Asia’s green revolution success—was just 12 kilograms per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa in 2004, less than one-tenth of the application levels in Asia at that time.

Malawi was one of the first countries to take up Annan’s challenge. Controversially, against the advice of its most powerful donors, Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika subsidized inputs through a government-funded voucher scheme known as the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). Millions of small-holder farmers received fertilizer and improved seed at a fraction of the market price.

With good rains and a strong response to subsidized fertilizer and improved seeds, national maize production doubled in 2006. Critics argued Mutharika struck it lucky with the weather, and that these results could not be sustained. However, despite changes in national leadership and stop-start support from Malawi’s donors, the FISP has continued as a strategy for increasing farm productivity and national food security. The results are impressive. Since 2005, Malawi’s farmers have generated surpluses over national requirements in all but three years—2015, 2016, and 2018 (Figure 1).


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Source: Brookings Institution. Published: April 27, 2023.



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