Agriculture development chief: ‘The crisis after Ebola will be a food shortage crisis’

Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). [C. Schubert/Flickr]

Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). [C. Schubert/Flickr]

Food production structures in many West African countries face the threat of collapse – a consequence of the Ebola epidemic that is also likely to affect Europe, says Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in an interview with EURACTIV Germany.

Nigerian-born Kanayo F. Nwanze is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialised agency of the United Nations founded in 1977. During his visit to Berlin, Nwanze signed a framework agreement for rural investments, for €400 million, with the German development bank (KfW). He spoke with EURACTIV Berlin’s Dario Sarmadi.

Your mission is to improve the lives of farmers in rural areas in developing countries. How are they affected by Ebola?

Ebola, as a disease, is a health issue, first and foremost. But it is beginning to have severe effects on food production in the Ebola-affected countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Farmers in rural communities are abandoning their fields for fear of contracting the virus – or because of ill-health and death – leaving nobody to farm their land. On top of that, Ebola also affects regional trade.

Can you give an example?

Take the case of Guinea: In the mountain areas, close to the border to Senegal, farmers are growing onions and selling them to the Senegalese market. In 2013, until September, they sold around 250 tonnes. This year by September they had only shipped 22 tonnes. The reason is simple: We are currently witnessing a spike in prices in Senegal and a drop in prices in Guinea. Furthermore, trade has been blocked by closed borders to prevent contagion.

You are hinting at medium- and long-term problems that need to be addressed. But don’t we need urgent humanitarian action first, in order to prevent a further spread of Ebola?

I fully agree. The first priority should still be the immediate response to Ebola, so that less people die and get infected. But we also need to think ahead about an impending, second crisis: hunger. Often times, if there is a catastrophe, we tend to forget the immediate impact shortly after. What we will witness soon is a population that is deprived of access to food, because the food is not available, because the farms have not been cultivated, the crops are left rotting in the fields.  And what then? Are the people going to eat sand? The crises after Ebola will be a crises of food shortages, price hikes and food insecurity.

So what actions should the international community take?

We need to strengthen the key institutions in Ebola-affected countries, such as hospitals. But additionally, we as international donors, should better adjust our programs, our existing development portfolios. We have to provide families with food assistance. And there must be a serious increase in both resources and political will to improve rural infrastructure, technology, financial services, local institutions and the rest. With long-term rural investment, we can move away from this crisis-to-crisis approach we are currently pursuing. We have to take measures that sustainably reduce poverty, ensure food security, promote social development and build resilience in communities at risk.

Many Europeans are wondering,how the situation in those countries affects their own lives. What can you tell these people?

What affects a small city like Timbuktu in Mali also affects Berlin, New York, Rome and London. It is a matter of migration. People that are not able to make a living and feed themselves will take the risk and try to find a better life in Europe. You can only stem large influxes of people to Europe if you invest in the home countries. We must make it less attractive for the people to leave their homes.

Supporting smallholders in rural areas is something you have promoted since the 1970s, claiming that these people are ‘the forgotten’. These smallholders are also responsible for 80% of the food production in developing countries. Do you see any progress among Western leaders toward shifting their political priorities?

We are happy that food security has the chance to be included in the post-2015 agenda. The proposed second goal specifically targets sustainable agriculture development and smallholder farmers. Finally the world is listening to us. But hopefully, even five years from now, the international community will still be talking about supporting smallholders to achieve food security. Because the work is not finished.

Every country can definitely do more for rural areas. But first and foremost, developing countries themselves need to take responsibility, invest political leadership and financial resources in creating urgently-needed infrastructure. Only when those efforts come from within these countries, will the help of the international community bear fruit.

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