Africa needs a green revolution. Food yields on the continent are roughly one metric ton of grain per hectare of cultivated land, a figure little changed from 50 years ago and roughly one third of the yields achieved in the rest of the world. In low-income regions elsewhere in the world, including China and India, the introduction of high-yield seeds, fertilizer and small-scale irrigation boosted food productivity beginning in the mid-1960s and opened the escape route from extreme poverty for huge populations. A similar takeoff in sub-Saharan Africa is both an urgent priority and a real possibility. 

Until this change happens, Africa’s vast rural areas, which are home to two thirds of its population, will remain mired in poverty, hunger and high child mortality and will stay isolated from the world market economy. Proven technologies—high-yield seeds, new water-management techniques for Africa’s mainly rain-dependent crop lands and new ways to replenish soil nutrients—are already achieving three to five tons per hectare in many parts of Africa but too often only in small demonstration projects.

Market forces alone are not able to diffuse these new technologies at the start, but they can sustain them once they are reliably in use. Currently tens of millions of African farmers, with hundreds of millions of dependents, are stuck living in subsistence conditions of extreme poverty, with little ability to purchase the package of improved inputs of seed, fertilizer, and water technology. They lack creditworthiness to borrow, or savings to buy the inputs on their own. They lack even minimal community infrastructure (roads, power and storage capacity) to participate profitably in the market economy.  The result is little uptake of the technologies, and farmers by the tens of millions mired in subsistence and traditional low-yield technologies.

To break the poverty trap, Africa and its donor partners in the wealthier countries should follow the Asian example.  Impoverished rural areas should receive temporary grants to help the communities to adopt high-yield technology packages and to further diversify their farm systems by introducing new cash crops, new linkages to markets and the integration of livestock and fish farming when ecologically appropriate.

Until recently, donors sent only food aid in response to Africa’s deepening agricultural crisis. Now they are waking up to the one real solution: increased agricultural production through a homegrown African green revolution. Four kinds of temporary help are needed: financing of the input package for impoverished farmers; agricultural extension services to advise farmers on the new technologies; community nurseries to diversity production, aimed at improving local nutrition and increasing the market value of farm output; and investments in community electrification, all-weather roads, grain storage and local milling. New market-based techniques of financial management can also offer weather-risk insurance to the farm communities.

The time for action is ripe for several reasons. Most important among them is that African leaders themselves are prioritizing agriculture and often getting major increases in harvests and farm incomes as a result. Malawi has more than doubled its food output in just three years, following a bold government program to ensure that all farm households have subsidized access to fertilizers and high-yield seeds. Others are following that lead. 

International institutions such as the World Bank have returned to leadership on agriculture after years of waiting in vain for the markets alone to solve the problem. As an internal Bank review noted last year, “In most reforming [African] countries the private sector did not step in to fill the vacuum when the public sector withdrew.” The Bank’s evaluation called upon the Bank and donors to “help design efficient mechanisms, including public-private partnerships, to provide farmers with critical inputs, including fertilizers, water, credit, and seeds.” 

New international donors have also stepped forward. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, sponsored by the Gates and Rockefeller foundations, has given a massive boost to the agenda. Aid to Africa from the governments of wealthy countries has been promised to double between 2004 and 2010, and much of that should go to agriculture. 

An additional reason speaks to the urgency for change: Africa’s vulnerability to food insecurity has skyrocketed. The population has outstripped the food supply, the only region of the world in which this is true. Climate change is already wreaking havoc on crop yields, and the changing timing and increased unpredictability of rains. Depletion of soil nutrients has reached crisis proportions across the continent. Soaring world food prices has put a crippling burden on Africa as a net food importer. This way lies disaster.

Here are bold but realistic goals that Africa and its donor partners can adopt: to double grain yields in Africa by 2012, to graduate at least three quarters of African smallholder farm households from subsistence to commercial farming within a decade, and to expand nutrition programs alongside increased food production to cut the ranks of the hungry by at least half by 2015.

We should establish a special fund for the green revolution in Africa akin to the highly successful Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. An annual flow of $10 billion from the rich countries, half through the fund, would finance the needed breakthroughs. It would amount to roughly $10 per person in the donor countries, a modest sum that would give Africa the historic opportunity to banish extreme poverty and chronic hunger for hundreds of millions of its people.