Vital Signs Gains Support at African Green Revolution Forum

A woman harvests crops in Tanzania. Most of Tanzania's population is made up of smallholder farmers.

A woman harvests crops in Tanzania. Most of Tanzania’s population is made up of smallholder farmers. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Feeding the world’s growing population in the next 40 years will require a 70-100% expansion in food production — and we can’t do it without Africa.

The importance of the role African agriculture will play in this increase was firmly established this week at the African Green Revolution Forum, an event organized to facilitate one of the continent’s key goals: scaling up investment and innovation for sustainable agricultural growth and food security.

One look at the diverse audience gathered in Arusha, Tanzania for the forum’s official opening — seated in a conference center completed just the night before to accommodate the 1,200 delegates — made it clear that a primary goal of the forum was to bring together different sectors.

“Interconnected challenges require interconnected solutions,” noted Melinda Gates, a keynote speaker at the forum along with Tanzanian President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

This was an ideal setting in which to present the Vital Signs Monitoring System, launched earlier this year with a grant to CI from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Vital Signs is co-led by CI, South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and the Earth Institute, Columbia University; it provides integrated information on agriculture, ecosystem services and human well-being.

When it comes to agricultural development, goals for increasing crop yields and farmer incomes are critical, but they don’t give us the whole picture. Truly sustainable development requires an integrated set of metrics and indicators that reflect the interconnectedness of food security, water security, climate security, ecosystem health and human well-being.

In Tanzania, Udzungwa National Park's Sanje Waterfall overlooks farmland that depends on its water.

In Tanzania, Udzungwa National Park’s Sanje Waterfall overlooks farmland that depends on its water. (© Benjamin Drummond)

Vital Signs was created to address this critical need. In 2010, a Vital Signs pilot project in the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) was conducted in partnership with the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics, Sokoine University and others. This region has great potential to improve agricultural productivity and livelihoods for smallholder farmers, but a key challenge is to increase yields and incomes without damaging the environment and the natural benefits it provides for local people.

At the forum, we presented data from a new Vital Signs report about this project, including:

  • Population density: 24% of Tanzania’s population currently lives in this corridor, and population density is expected to increase by 6-10% by 2015.
  • Household income: nearly 50% of farmers in the region earn less than US$ 0.50 per day.
  • Value of biodiversity: through park entry fees, photography permits and other sources of income, this value is estimated to be more than US$ 650 million per year in the SAGCOT.
  • Fuelwood availability: firewood currently in short supply across much of the region.

Our panelists included Dr. Roy Steiner (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), Dr. Mohamed Beavogui (International Fund for Agricultural Development), Dr. Robert Berendes (Syngenta) and Dr. Geoffrey Kirenga (SAGCOT Centre), who discussed the relevance of Vital Signs as the standard for tracking agricultural sustainability in the context of SAGCOT and initiatives like Grow Africa and the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.

Speaking to a full house of private- and public-sector members, the panelists were visibly enthusiastic. “Vital Signs will be a new public good for better decision-making — it bridges gaps between scientific disciplines,” said Steiner. “If we care about agriculture and the environment, we’ve got to find a way to make this work.”

Beavogui was equally animated: “Vital Signs is tackling exactly the problems we are facing today — the important element is measurements that combine landscapes and smallholders.”

The audience responded with questions about the monitoring system and its potential impact as a decision-making tool for African policymakers. Perhaps the most encouraging message came from one such leader, SAGCOT CEO and former member of the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Geoffrey Kirenga. “Vital Signs will help us make the right decisions,” he said. “It will create a platform to help us know where opportunities lie.”

Sara Barbour is the coordinator for Vital Signs Africa. Download the SAGCOT report (PDF).


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