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Obama Ghana Visit, Daring to Hope for Africa

On the eve of the historic visit by US President Barack Obama to Ghana, the President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Kanayo F. Nwanze, offers the following reflections:

When Barack Obama became president six months ago, the hope that swept through the United States spread to the most remote and fragile regions of the world. Now, as he prepares for his first visit to Africa since taking office, those of us working in development can dare to hope that this symbolic visit will signal the start of an expanding and lasting US engagement with Africa.

President Obama's visit to Ghana so early in his presidency is reason enough to celebrate. It sends a strong message to the world that Africa matters. It is also a message that the US cares deeply about Africa's development and the millions of Africans, particularly those in rural areas, who strive daily for a better life for themselves and their children.

But true hope must stem from something more substantial than a Presidential visit, as important as it is. At IFAD, our hope for a better future for millions of poor rural people is bolstered by President Obama who speaks from the head and from the heart when he talks about hunger in Africa. The President has acknowledged that the United States has an economic, security and moral obligation to help those counties and people most at risk from the global economic crisis and food insecurity.

Hunger is inhumane and should not be tolerated. Food security is a moral obligation, and it also underpins national, regional and global security. We have seen all too often the social turmoil that accompanies hunger and desperation in developing countries. Without food security, the world is not secure.

As an African, I am heartened that an American president with a passion for social justice is making Africa a priority. Three hundred and eighty million women, children and men in Africa live on less than $1.25 a day in sub-Saharan Africa. Many are malnourished.

Agriculture has been an engine of economic growth and social development over the centuries and across continents, including 19th century US and 20th century Asia. Africa must be no exception to this pattern. When smallholder farmers are at the heart of that growth, the impact on a country's economy and food security can be dramatic.

President Obama clearly recognises this in his call for the US to invest more in agricultural growth in developing countries. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that agricultural development will become a "central element" of U.S. foreign policy. This is truly a cause for hope.

In Africa, economic growth must be based on creating a dynamic smallholder agriculture sector. Most African countries are still predominately rural societies and smallholder farms are responsible for as much as 80 per cent of their agricultural production.

Africa is so often portrayed in such negative terms that success stories from the continent are often overshadowed. Yet there is a vast, but as yet untapped, potential in African agriculture. The amount of arable land available in sub-Saharan Africa could be increased four to fivefold with judicious use of irrigation and fertilizer.

Through my work in development, I have seen the extraordinary changes that can come about when poor farmers are given the means to improve their lives. When I headed the Africa Rice Center (WARDA), we developed a new rice variety - NERICA - that combined the hardiness of native African rice species and the high productivity of Asian rice. As a result, many poor farmers in Africa were able to more than double their yields. With the right investment in agricultural research, new varieties of other food staples can also be developed.

African countries need the support of the world to turn around their agricultural sectors. That support must include encouraging African governments to create the right policy framework and incentives for rapid growth in agriculture. And, more broadly, African countries need to put their own political and economic houses in order.

Today, the United States has a leader with a personal interest in Africa, an understanding of poverty and a vision for change. And so, as President Obama heads to Ghana, we dare to hope that the United States will re-engage anew with Africa and keep a steady focus on a key foundation for development - smallholder farmers.

Kanayo F. Nwanze, a Nigerian national, recently took office as the President of the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) works with poor rural people to enable them to grow and sell more food, increase their incomes, and determine the direction of their own lives. Since 1978, IFAD has invested over US$11 billion in grants and low-interest loans to developing countries, empowering some 340 million people to break out of poverty. IFAD is an international financial institution and a specialized UN agency based in Rome - the UN's food and agricultural hub. It is a unique partnership of 165 members from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), other developing countries and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

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