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Opinion: Brazil can boost African agriculture

President Lula can convince increased investment in rural development.

African farmer holds maize
In Kisiwa village, western Kenya, Farmer Gentrix Mesache shows the difference between her maize, which was grown using high-yield seed and fertilizer, and the maize of a neighbor, which was grown using local seed and no fertilizer. (Stephanie Hanson/GlobalPost)

BUNGOMA, Kenya — Food security and agricultural development have become hot topics.

U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has rolled out its “Feed the Future” initiative. The World Bank started a multi-donor trust fund for food security in April. Africa, with the world’s lowest crop yields and its greatest potential to produce food, will be the recipient of the majority of funding from both initiatives. While African governments will benefit from this funding, their most useful partner has gone largely unnoticed: Brazil.

In recent years, Brazil has quietly accelerated its foreign aid. It is also an agriculture powerhouse. As African governments try to facilitate a Green Revolution in Africa, Brazil is uniquely positioned to help.

Perhaps better than any other foreign power, Brazil understands the challenges that African governments will face as they try to ramp up crop production and to develop complex supply chains for agribusiness. Brazil’s farm industry is currently worth roughly $250 billion, and it accounts for about 35 percent of the country’s exports.

In the 1970s, however, Brazilian agriculture suffered from low yields and a lack of institutions to increase production.

Over the next 30 years, Brazil achieved tremendous yield increases in grains, sugarcane and dairy through targeted state investment. It started a research institution, Embrapa, which now has 41 centers across the country and a budget of over $1 billion. Embrapa claims that every dollar it has invested in technology development has produced $6.60 in returns for Brazilians. Brazil also invested in rural agriculture through Pronaf, a scheme that provides financing guarantees for equipment and encourages technology uptake.

African governments can learn much from these initiatives. First, agriculture development requires sustained investment over several decades. Brazil can show African leaders the wisdom of committing at least 10 percent of state budgets to agriculture, as they have promised to do, though few have followed through.