TUNIS Foreign donors should do more to stimulate private investment to improve Africa's ailing farm sector and address a worsening food crisis, delegates at a farming conference said on Friday.
Africa is struggling to feed a growing population due to years of neglect of agriculture and a shift by many countries to export crops that increased reliance on food imports.
Africa's wheat consumption in 2005 grew 3 times quicker than output, according to the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
A doubling of commodity prices in the last two years has triggered riots in several countries.
The African Development Bank (AfDB), the only multilateral development body devoted only to Africa, had boosted its agricultural loans by $1 billion to $4.8 billion since May 3.
But the food crisis is also forcing international lenders to rethink their approach, according to delegates at the meeting of African agriculture officials and development partners in Tunis.
AfDB officials said many donors had failed to make credit available to African farmers and that aid to African agriculture had declined in the past few years.
"There's a realization that we cannot just continue with business as usual," AfDB Vice President Zeinab El Bakri told Reuters. "There's a consciousness that donors must work together... It also means enhancing private sector partnership."
She said there had to be a focus on certain staple foods.
"Rice is one and we are working on that to improve this new rice for Africa."
The benefits of reform are potentially huge -- United Nations experts say Africa could triple or quadruple crop output over two seasons through simple changes to farming techniques.
Even with current farm yields, more Africans could get the food they need if countries in the same region worked together to assess their needs and improved market access, the AfDB said.
Western African countries such as Liberia, Guinea and Ivory Coast are particularly exposed to the global food crisis as they are heavily dependent on food imports.
Ivory Coast produces about 600,000 metric tons of rice but needs 1.5 million metric tons to feed its population, according to official figures presented at the Tunis conference. World rice prices have doubled to $760 per metric ton this year.
"There is will and political commitment to address the food crisis challenge," said Ali Abu-Sabaa, agriculture department director at AfDB. "But what we really need is to coordinate."
Adama Coulibaly, technical advisor at Mali's agriculture ministry called for better use of technologies to boost output.
One of the world's poorest countries and hostage to recurring droughts, Mali aims to harvest 10 million metric ton of wheat per year in the next 4 years, up from 3.8 million in 2007.
"We think this target is reachable by reinforcing farming research and modernizing information systems to find the best ways to boost productivity and competitiveness," Coulibaly said.
Farmers in many African states face an uphill struggle to increase production because they are suffering from higher costs of seeds, fertilizers and fuel.
Some international lenders who normally advocate free markets have begun advocating temporary state subsidies.
"The conventional wisdom is subsidies are a no-no," Bakri said. "But Malawi has shown it can do it in a smart way...It has achieved bumper crops by subsidizing seeds and fertilizers and gone from a situation of receiving food aid to a food surplus."
(Reporting by Sonia Ounissi; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer)