Try out the new Website!
Try out the new Website!

Prioritizing smallholder agriculture

Masaaki Miyamoto has been serving as chief executive officer of the Sasakawa Africa Association, which is also known as Sasakawa Global 2000, one of the first NGOs that came to Africa to mitigate the effects of disease and famine. For 31 years, Miyamoto has worked in at least 15 African countries to better the lives of smallholder farming communities. Currently, Sasakawa’s operations in Africa are limited to four countries, viz., Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda. Sasakawa Africa Association was founded by Japanese tycoon and philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa. Miyamoto notes that mechanized farming and agro-processing can have a future in Ethiopia and beyond. Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter recently sat down with Miyamoto to talk about the challenges and prospects of African agriculture with a special focus on the contributions of Sasakawa Africa. Excerpts:

The Reporter: In more that three decades of operation in Africa, what would you say are the highs and lows for Sasakawa Africa?

Masaaki Miyamoto: The most difficult thing was that our mission at first was focused on how we can deal with famine situations. Because, as you know, what brought us to Africa in the first place was the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. At that time, Mr. Sasakawa, along with former President Jimmy Carter and Mr. Norman Borlaug, decided to do something to help people in Africa. Initially, we just wanted countries to boost agricultural productivity. That was our focus and we had been operating in fifteen countries. But currently we are working in only four countries. The 11 countries we had operated in have already graduated. We go to countries and within four to five years, we would be successful 100 percent. We introduce simple technologies such as line planting, weeding and taking care of farmlands in a timely manner. Just by implementing these, farmers for sure can double or triple their yields. In the past, they spread the seeds all over the farm and the yield was very poor. We show them what they can do better. Local experts also tell them how best to increase yields. That way famine could be kept at bay, and we would withdraw once we achieve that goal. All the countries we had operated in, our project appeared to be successful at the initial stage; but it didn’t last long. In our experience, when production increased threefold, market prices would increase only by one-third. The farmers got disappointed and would not have the incentive to raise productivity the following year. This had always been an issue in all the 11 countries that we operated in in the past. As a small NGO, we can’t engage in big-ticket projects such as water harvesting and the like. Hence, we decided that we could do more by, for instance, showing farmers better techniques of storing their surplus yield for long unaffected by insects or other infestations. We thought about adding value to the surplus yield and preserving it by oiling or powdering or frying methods through women’s groups. Crop extension was one of the programs we have emphasized in the past. Now we added and started what we call agro-processing thematic program. It was quite successful and all the governments we have worked with welcomed us. We wanted to go further and launched private-public partnership market access programs. We launched this program five years ago along with the value chain increasing agro-processing activities. These have been the three thematic areas we have been doing for the past five years. Since then, things have been going very well with the remaining countries we have operations in except for climate change impacts. Climate change is going to be a big issue and concern from now on. We can’t tackle such issues but we can do something small in that regard. Drought-resistant hybrid seeds, rainwater harvesting techniques and other bits and pieces we can do as a small NGO.

From boosting productivity all the way to training agricultural extension workers, Sasakawa Africa has been working to bring in the private sector on board. But for now let’s talk about the countries that have graduated and some of the challenges they might have faced. Food security has been a challenge for Ethiopia, Mali, Nigeria, Mozambique and Uganda. How do you tackle such challenging situations?

Honestly speaking, we need to cope with a situation on a case-by-case basis. For instance, in some countries we can’t predict the insurgency of militant groups such as Boko Haram. Every time they appear, we can’t operate but leave that area. Once they are gone, we will go back and try to help. The same happened in Mali. This is a destiny we can’t predict. This is how we try to go forward.

How do you see the activities of so many actors involved in agriculture and other sectors? The outcomes might not be that bad if not enough, and there’s a long way to go.

My own opinion is that most of the funders do not stay long. For instance, we have been operating in Ethiopia for more than 20 years and continuing. Continuity is the power. We can’t just withdraw within four or five years as the World Bank does. It’s just a waste of money. You need to stay doing what you do continuously and convince the government to release more budget for agriculture. The likes of the World Bank suggest the budget should be around 14 percent to keep things up. I think in Ethiopia the agricultural budget is around 7 or 8 percent, but the country is doing well. The Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) are doing well. They have taken up our methodologies and are spreading it across the country. I am sure Ethiopia will be a model country soon. We are assisting the country’s agro-processing sector in line with our thematic program. This is one of the key tasks for the government. Once bumper harvests are the rule, they will need agro-processing and marketing. What we have started as well is that they need to have farmers-based organizations. It is exactly how Japan has come out after the Second World War. We took agriculture as a priority in the country. Then we structured farmer-based organizations to centralize all the pieces of production. Securing a new grant from the Nippon Foundation, we started a program to strengthen the management skills of farmer-based organizations. Lack of such skills caused failures in countries. For instance, in Uganda, seven out of ten farmer organizations have failed due to lack of basic managerial skills. Lack of accounting, lack of how to collect membership fees and the like are some of the challenges. For that we added a five-year training program for managers of farmers’ organizations. It’s going very well now. For Ethiopia, we will use farmers’ training centers that are already in place. If this goes well, that could give them the skill on how to sell produce on the market as well. Education is our fourth thematic program. The fifth is monitoring and evaluation. Back in the days, Borlaug was a kind of person who insists we should all go to the fields and not stay in the office. He disliked office workers. He really disliked the log frame: project plan, business plan, output and input plans were not his interest. He says if we have time to do that, it should be in the fields working with the farmers. But we are now realizing that we didn’t have raw data to see the typical changes. We want to understand how we have done things in the past 30 years.

I am sure you are operating in communities where smallholder farming dominates agriculture. One of the challenging issues in these communities is to expand commercial farming. Does  Sasakawa Africa take that as a challenge?

Most small-scale farmers in Africa are spread all over the place. It is very difficult to bring them all together in one locality. Our way of doing things is that of putting in place small-scale farmers’ organization so that nearby villagers could come over and, for instance, make use of a thresher and get yield from wheat, corn or millet or teff and keep it packed and stored. This way of doing things will lure more farmers to come and get benefits. I think this is how we should work with dispersed small-scale farmers. 

Let me bring to your attention what former President Jimmy Carter once said. He said African smallholder farmers could get organized to reap the benefits of cultivating huge chunks of land, which many of them have been leasing out to foreign investors. He tried to reason with African leaders to follow such methods. He suggested African farmers should be given all the inputs, tractors and other machinery so they could become large-scale farmers. Do you think that is doable in Africa?

That is the American way of doing farming. In the coming 20 years, that might be possible [in Africa]. But getting so quickly into mechanization could spoil everything. You will have nothing but rusting machines. That’s why in our program, thematic two, we focused on agro-processing projects. We provide them with blueprints on how they could install factories that manufacture simple machines. They are happy doing that. They would buy machines such as thresher with small loans and sell it in the market. In less than a year, they could increase their sale. In my opinion, Ethiopians are very clever; once they knew things move, everybody would rush to it. In 20 years, I am certain mechanization could happen. But we shouldn’t hurry. What former President Carter said was the American way of doing agriculture. He should be aware of the history, land ownership and tribal fabrics in Africa. It’s not that easy.

Speaking of agro-processing, the government of Ethiopia has launched a program to install agro-processing parks. How do you see that? Is it feasible or is there something you suggest be done?

It will take time but it’s in the right direction. But as I said, no need to rush. Things will not move in a hurry. Farmers may not follow that quickly. You need to take your time.

For instance, one of the misgivings people have about the plan is that there isn’t that surplus production to feed the processing plants continually.

So far, you may not have that amount of produce. But I am sure your government is so confident they will have surplus. When you have the surplus, it might be too late to do anything such as agro-processing. I think if they execute the plan five years on, it’s okay. But it’s a good decision for the government. It’s a feasible plan they have and I believe it will work out well.

Let me take you to Mr. Sasakawa. Both Sasakawa and Borlaug were close friends. Borlaug is famous for launching the Green Revolution in India, Pakistan and Mexico. Both have tried to replicate that success in Africa. Tell me how they managed to work together in Africa?

One thing many people might not know about the Noble Peace Prize [Norman] Borlaug won as the father of the Green Revolution was because of his invention or modification of a dwarf and strong variety of wheat seed. But the basic discovery was made by a famous Japanese scientist. Emerging victorious in the Second World War, the US had appropriated every modern technology they could lay their hands on in Japan. Part of that was a strong and dwarf variety of wheat developed in Japan. When Borlaug launched his wheat program in Mexico, he couldn’t find a suitable seed variety, and he returned to the US looking for good seeds. He, of course, could find that strong wheat, and further developed it. He brought that seed to India and Pakistan, eventually making exporters out of these hitherto agrarian nations. He once told me: “My Nobel Prize is partly from what I had from Japan.” I am sure that is one of the reasons that bonded Borlaug with Mr. Sasakawa to work for Africa.

Tell me what kind of person Mr. Sasakawa is? What are his passions?

He is very passionate to be humanitarian. He cares for others, and wants them to have better lives. He would like to offer whatever he had to make the world a better place for people. He says the Moon and Jupiter are our neighbors and everyone is brothers and sisters. The Earth is home to one family. That passion moved Mr. Borlaug.

There’s no doubt Mr. Sasakawa is very generous. He was working for the African cause of dealing with and preventing famine situations.

Not only famine but he also worked to tackle diseases as well. Of course, former President Carter was working hard to eradicate Guinea-worm disease. But the fight to eradicate leprosy was started by Mr. Sasakawa 40 years ago. He travelled across Africa. Even in our program in Ethiopia, we brought in people affected by leprosy to be part of the program. We have been following an all-in-one policy approach.

How much money would you say has been spent in the past 30 years for humanitarian causes in Africa?

I think it is about USD 250 million. It would be more than that as we have other streams of funding, like the one for education from the Nippon Foundation.

Currently, Sasakawa Africa is operating only in four countries. Do you think its operations will continue well into the future? 

For a while, it has been decided that the operations in those countries will continue. I recently met with Mr. Sasakawa and that is confirmed. Ethiopia is a symbolic country though the Chinese are coming a lot. I think the government needs to put more priority on agriculture. For a country to be independent, it’s not the airports, roads or railways; but it’s agriculture that keeps people alive. The people must have surplus and they need to be able to sell that to other countries. Then success starts from there. If famine breaks out tomorrow and if people have nothing to eat, then nothing can be done. All stops right there.

Ethiopia has so far had two prime ministers. With power changing hands, how have your ideas been received through time?

I was a close friend of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi because he knew Mr. Sasakawa for a long period of time. Whatever issues we had, he helped us out. We had a very close relationship with PM Meles and we miss him very much. Our then ambassador was very envious of our frequent meetings with the PM as he could manage to meet with Meles only once a year. We have a good relationship with the Ministry of Agriculture and Natural Resources. This helps a lot. We aren’t considered just a regular NGO here. We work together and they utilize our methodology. That is a good thing.

What satisfies or what makes Mr. Sasakawa to say, ‘that’s okay and that’s what I want to see’? What keeps him moving?

Whenever he sees the smiling faces of children in the village, he says, “that is what I am working for.” But he never feels things have been completed. Not at all. Even for me working for 31 years in Africa, I see a lot of things moving, especially in Ethiopia. But there is still a long way to go. For me, it’s a never-ending story. I said in 20 years, things in agro-processing and mechanization might start happening and you might catch up with Japan or South Korea. But it needs more time. I hope it happens while I am still alive. But the measurement is the scale of production.

I heard you are leaving Sasakawa Africa after 31 years of service, is that right?

Yes, I am leaving by the end of July this year. But I am sure I will be back, and nobody could throw away my 31 years of experience in Africa.

I think you are the one who put all the nitty-gritty together. One would think that cultural differences, language barriers and so many other factors would make your job a little bit more challenging.

Yes, I tried to put all pieces into one. Sorry for my family but I like coming to Africa so often. Watching the smiling faces of children in the villages makes me to come again and again. I don’t know why they are so bright and smiling though they are not wealthy. I always try to refrain from giving them candies. Because I fear I might be spoiling the custom. But talking to them and taking pictures makes me happy.

Is there anything you regret not doing? Do you say, ‘I should have done this and that in my 31 years before leaving office’?

I don’t have any regrets. I have been working 110 percent. I would like to see the results. I want to see how Ethiopia changes and Uganda makes progress. I would like to see how Nigeria changes more and overcome the scourge of terrorism. These things interest me more as I have spent half of my life in Africa.