Michael Hailu is the director of the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) – an EU funded institution established to support smallholder farmers in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific. In this interview with Josephine Okojie, Hailu talks about CTA interventions in Africa’s agriculture and its role in solving global food security problems as the programme comes to an end in December 2020.
Can you tell us about CTA programme in Africa and the work it has done in the last 37 years?
CTA has been a leader in leveraging digital technologies in agriculture to increase farm productivity, access to markets and finance for smallholder farmers and to build resilience against climate change. For example, the Climate, Livestock, and Markets (CLIMARK) project has developed cutting-edge, satellite-based livestock insurance, which provided coverage and protection against drought for 10,000 pastoralists in northern Kenya and Ethiopia. CTA also works closely with digital start-ups such as Hello Tractor in Nigeria to help them develop their business, expand their client base, improve their business skills, and raise finance. We also organize annual Pitch Agri-Hack competitions to identify promising young tech innovators and support an online platform for African women agripreneurs to help them access networks and training.
You joined CTA in 2010 shortly after the global food price crisis, how did this shape your approach to leading the organisation?
The global food price crisis was a clarion call for policy-makers to prioritise sustainable agricultural development. Since then, there has been a renewed focus on agriculture as an engine for economic growth, food security and nutrition across African countries and elsewhere. CTA and its partners have risen to the challenge and demonstrated how agricultural innovations can be shared and scaled up to improve food security and livelihoods across Africa. We prioritised the areas where we believed most differences could be made: supporting women and young people, driving forward digitalisation and sharing knowledge. But for all our achievements, there remains a lot of work to do to increase productivity, reduce food waste, build climate-change resilience and make agriculture more sustainable. The number of hungry people has been on the rise since 2016 and now totals 820 million. But what I find encouraging is the significant change in approach towards the food sector – while in the past, the focus was purely on productivity, we are now moving towards a food-systems approach where the focus is also on food quality, sustainability and the impact of food on health and the environment.
To what extent would you say CTA has contributed towards solving global food security problems?
For more than 35 years, CTA has been a resource for smallholders, extension agents, agricultural development workers, and governments, providing practical information to help improve food security in Africa, the Caribbean, and Pacific. CTA’s long-running Spore magazine reached hundreds of thousands of readers over 19 years, while 19,000 people attended CTA events between 2011 and 2017. CTA programs have targeted around 700,000 smallholder farmers, training almost 245,000 extension agents in 2017 alone. We know from partner testimonials and our results that CTA’s work has made a real difference to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, a legacy of which we are proud. But we are under no illusions that significant challenges remain where many communities are on the frontline of climate change.
In discussing rural agriculture, Africa is mostly expected. What major interventions have you led on the continent in 10 years of heading CTA?
Over the last 10 years, we have implemented two strategic plans to realize CTA’s vision of smallholder agriculture as a vibrant, modern and sustainable business that creates value for farmers, entrepreneurs, youth and women, and produces affordable, nutritious and healthy food for all. We have supported projects with our partners in areas ranging from climate-smart agriculture to promoting youth entrepreneurship, digitalization, value chain development, and women empowerment. Most recently, CTA’s focus has been on positioning digitalisation as a game-changer for agricultural transformation in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific countries. We have made a significant contribution in terms of leveraging new technologies and the huge amounts of data being generated to make it easier for farmers to receive information in real-time. We have also played a key role in introducing digital technologies and innovations to help address important challenges in agriculture, including climate change.
Our flagship report in 2019 highlighted an untapped market of $2 billion for digital tools and services for African smallholders, providing vital market information for those looking to develop the sector and support farmers with new technology.
From your experience over the past decade, which African country has done the most to develop agriculture; commercially and for rural farmers?
A good reference for this would be the Biennial African Agricultural Transformation Scorecard produced by the African Union. The latest report shows that the high performing countries include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mauritius, and Mali.
Can you give an assessment of agricultural development on the African continent today, and areas of lapses you have noticed that should be fixed?
A good reference for this would be the Biennial African Agricultural Transformation Scorecard produced by the African Union.
Now that CTA is leaving, is there any framework in place to ensure projects for developing agriculture in Africa will continue?
We are confident that our partners will ensure that CTA’s accomplishments will be built upon and will serve to meet the aspirations of the ACP countries for agricultural transformation.
Comparatively, in your areas of operation across the world, where is rural agriculture developing the most, and if not Africa, what can Africa learn from it?
In our work across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific, CTA has supported a wide range of projects to help transform rural agriculture, but the most striking aspect is the number of challenges that are shared across borders. We have supported similar climate-smart agriculture projects in Jamaica, Ethiopia, and Mali, and many of the learning’s have been shared between countries. Facilitating such knowledge-sharing has been at the heart of CTA’s mission.
How much has CTA spent in its work in Africa in the last 10 years?
CTA’s annual budget has been approximately €16 million a year over the past six years and most of this budget is allocated to activities in Africa.
Can you tell us about some of the work CTA is doing in Nigeria specifically?
CTA’s Pitch Agri-Hack competition has identified and supported several promising Nigerian enterprises, all of which are led or co-led by women entrepreneurs. Also, CTA has hosted a separate incubator and hackathon in Nigeria. CTA has also worked with HelloTractor and several drone operators in Nigeria to support growing levels of mechanisation and the adoption of new technologies among smallholders. And we also supported Nigeria to carry out a national appraisal of the implementation of its climate targets and supported the Federal Ministry of Environment Nigeria to conduct a national validation of the report. Later, we worked with ECOWAS to carry out a synthesis of opportunities to finance climate actions in agriculture, also held in Abuja Nigeria.