Recently my brain has been aching with the complexity of how to improve food security and rural incomes for the poor… 960 million people are hungry. 80 million more than last year. 75% of the world’s poor live in rural areas. They could produce more food, but they do not have access to the capital, seeds, fertiliser, knowledge, tools, and markets (amongst other things) that would make it possible. Climate change is already undermining the productivity of poor farmers, and will do so more and more. Production needs to double if we are to feed the inevitable 9 billion people who will be on Earth in 2050.
There are thousands upon thousands of pages of reports and books to read, all analysing the problem. Development agencies are heavy with them. Desks piled high and walls lined with creaking shelves. I was briefly seduced by the idea that perhaps I could be the one to find the answer. If I read enough, and thought hard enough then perhaps I could suggest the perfect combination of measures that would eradicate hunger and rural poverty. All I would have to do was persuade the world to follow my suggestions. It seems to work for Jeffry Sachs.
But that’s not how change happens. Change happens when the right people are brought together in an empowering context to innovate solutions to problems they have a stake in. Change happens when people take risks to do something different, to work together, to learn from mistakes. Writing a report on the Nigerian rice market is unlikely to change much. Bring together Nigerian smallholders, a food supply chain company, some investors, the government and a charity that provides farmer training, and they are likely to create meaningful change and quickly – possibly without writing a single report.
Markets are good at change. People innovate, take risks, act with commitment, and if they are successful then the surplus is reinvested to got to scale. If they fail, then learning is quick and the initiative ends. Food globally is almost entirely produced and distributed by the private sector, and for over 5 billion people this works remarkably well with business driving up productivity and quality.
However, markets are clearly failing to serve the billion hungry people. The barriers are such that is just not commercially viable – often not even for these individuals to produce enough food for themselves. The Malawian farmer will not buy new seed or fertiliser when the price of maize is so volatile that he is likely to make a loss when it comes time to sell.
When markets are failing to deliver on a public good such as food, then the state has a role to play. The danger is that the state tries to address the problem by attempting to do the work of the private sector. Politicians cannot be seen to fail, so reports will be commissioned to analyse problems, waiting for the perfect solution to emerge before taking any action. And actions, no matter how misdirected, are declared a success and continue to swallow up resources.
Instead, the state should act to make markets work for the poor. Through convening stakeholders, reform of regulation, or providing risk finance, the state can tip the balance of opportunities and risks in favour of commercially viable food production. Then it can step aside and let the market innovate and act to make change happen. Feeding the hungry requires less words and more leadership action.
Wasafiri is committed to generating action that improves the lives of the poor. We recognise hunger as a complex global issue that requires public and private sector actors to collaborate if we are to achieve long-lasting systemic change. There is a need for cross-sector activity that identifies market failures, convenes actors, innovates commercially viable solutions, and drives co-ordinated, focussed action. The public sector can demonstrate leadership by helping convene, providing risk finance or reforming regulation. The private sector can demonstrate leadership by innovating commercial solutions to make markets work for the poor, that is to get more food on the plates of hungry people.