Talking food security and supporting small-scale farmers with IFAD president Alvaro Lario

This interview between IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) President Alvaro Lario and Farm Radio International’s Executive Director, Kevin Perkins, took place in Ottawa during President Lario’s first visit to Canada. In their conversation, they discussed how IFAD is supporting small-scale farmers across the African continent and around the world, how climate change is challenging the lives and livelihoods of farmers, and how IFAD is engaging communities to be involved in the solutions to the big challenges they face (and letting decision makers know what those challenges are).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kevin Perkins: Right now in many parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, food insecurity is rising quite dramatically. In West Africa, for example, the number of people who lack regular access to safe and nutritious food is expected to reach 48 million between June and August this year. Meanwhile, in the Horn of Africa, at the start of 2023, the drought had left around 23 million people severely food insecure. What are the main causes of the growth we’re seeing in food insecurity right now?

Alvaro Lario: There is a convergence of causes. The pandemic, ongoing conflicts, inflation, climate events, they all have contributed to shortages and disruptions. We are seeing that food, energy, fertilizer prices remain high, and we’re also seeing extreme weather events intensifying. At the same time, unfortunately, many of the low- and middle-income countries are suffering from a high level of debt, high global inflation, and also some of their currencies are depreciating. It is clear that the recent increase in poverty and the continued rise in hunger over this last year means that we need to engage much more to tackle the root causes, the underlying things that are making these things work. The current situation and some of the disruptions we’re seeing, they really indicate that the food systems — that is how we produce food, how we transform food, how we sell food, distribute food, store food — are really fragile and currently ineffective. Nutritious food is not accessible to all. If we continue neglecting rural people, we will only exacerbate poverty, hunger and forced migration.

KP: What are some of the strategies and investments that IFAD is pursuing to help boost the productivity and income of small-scale farmers, improve their resilience to climate change and improve nutrition?

AL: First of all, it is important to understand that investing in small-scale farmers makes a lot of economic, political and environmental sense. Small-scale farmers have the potential to lift millions of people out of poverty and hunger. We know that investment in agriculture is estimated to be at least two, three times more effective in reducing poverty than investing in other sectors. Today with climate change, biodiversity extinction, economic shocks and rising conflicts we know that these are extraordinary times. We need to invest now in this structural change that can end hunger and extreme poverty. It’s not acceptable that 3 billion people cannot access nutritious food or that 80 per cent of the world’s poorest people live in rural areas.

IFAD President Alvaro Lario and the Executive Director of Farm Radio International, Kevin Perkins.

KP: You spoke of the impact of climate change on food security, especially for small-scale producers in Sub Saharan Africa. How is IFAD working to help farmers adapt and even find ways to thrive and improve their food security in the face of a hotter, drier, more turbulent and disaster-prone climate?

AL: We know small-scale farmers are at the frontlines of climate change. They live in some of the most vulnerable landscapes, such as hillsides, floodplains, and they rely on fragile natural resources to make a living. As a result, … rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, pest infestations, rising sea levels, extreme weather events are threatening their lives and their livelihoods. When I meet many of the heads of state in Africa, in addition to food systems, what they’re really worried about is how they can mobilize further financing to support how rural communities can adapt to these climate extreme weather events. This is why we need to build resilience to the shocks today so that there will be enough food these farmers can produce to feed the planet tomorrow. We know that extreme weather events will become more frequent. We’re seeing it every day in our lives, and we are also seeing that biodiversity is on the brink of extinction. That’s why global food systems are becoming more and more fragile. We need to make sure that we build this local resilience, supporting small farmers and ensuring that local production and well-functioning markets are in place. Generally at IFAD, 100 per cent of our finance projects are designed and assessed, looking at the climate vulnerability. And of every dollar that we invest in countries, 40 cents goes to climate-sensitive projects and to climate activities. It’s important to support small-scale farmers. They’re really at the forefront of climate change.

KP: Africa has a young population. The large majority of its citizens are under 35. Although some young people are choosing agriculture as a career, I think it’s fair to say that a majority see agriculture as an exhausting, risky, difficult occupation. Is there anything that IFAD is able to do to change that, to make farming a more attractive livelihood for young people?

AL: Farming is a generator of income. Farming is a business and it is important that we really support the young population in their quest to have a higher income, to have a business and to include as much as we can technology in many of these areas. When you talk to a young person, one of the things they are concerned about is how they can finance, how they are going to learn, how this can become a business. For us, it’s important that we offer them the solutions and the opportunities — that we support them, not only in food processing, but also … in all farm jobs: how food is distributed, how food is marketed, how food is stored, how food is exported, and all of this can also have the potential for growth and job creation. We need to invest in training, in access to technology, small loans. All of this will attract more and more young people. The reality is that the youth population is growing fast in the poorest nations, in particular in Africa. And we’re seeing every year 10 million young people join the labour force. At the same time, only around 3 million jobs are created. So it’s very clear that we need to provide solutions for the younger generation. Otherwise, this will only create further frustration, lack of hope, further conflict, forced migration. So we really need to provide an opportunity to this younger generation.

KP: There are many changes confronting small-scale farmers: climate change, changes in the global marketplace and so forth. As a result, new farming methods, technologies, adaptation practices need to be put into place by small-scale farmers. These new practices and methods are information- and knowledge-intensive. Yet, relevant and timely, useful information can be hard to come by. At Farm Radio, we talk about information poverty as a barrier to the success of small-scale farming. Is IFAD making investments to help with the delivery and provision of information, especially for women in rural areas?

AL: Working with partners like Farm Radio International can help us reach many of the small-scale farmers you were talking about, particularly women and young people, with timely, useful information that they can use in their practices. For us, empowering women, tackling gender inequality and building women’s resilience to shocks is a key priority. There are around 1.7 billion women and girls that live in rural areas. That is one fifth of humanity, and on almost every gender indicator, rural women are far worse off than rural men. In particular, they carry a disproportionate burden of malnutrition, especially during the reproductive age. So it’s important that we invest in women and also in girls. We need to help them access tools, inputs, skills, and also develop their capacity through information so that they can participate in the decisions in their household and in their communities. Despite being major contributors to these economies, we still see that women lack access to productive assets like land or many of the inputs that are necessary. If we manage to close the gender gap in farm productivity, there are estimates that agrifood systems could increase global GDP by even 1 per cent, that is $1 trillion. So I think we really need to invest in women.

KP: Disseminating information is really important, but communication is a two-way street. It’s important that the voices of rural women and other rural people be heard by decision makers at global and national levels. That’s why we’ve really been proud at Farm Radio to partner with IFAD on On Air Dialogues, which use radio programs plus digital tools to bring rural people’s feedback to the attention of decision makers. Why is it so important for IFAD to ensure that these voices are not only heard, but also make their way into the decisions and actions that are taken by policymakers?

AL: IFAD is very much an inclusive and community-driven organization. For many of our projects, the communities themselves invest in those projects. There’s growing global recognition that solutions are only sustainable if there’s the ownership of communities, and also if they reflect people’s local realities and real experiences on the ground. And sometimes it’s difficult for many of these decision makers to access the opinions of people, especially in remote areas. As you mentioned, radio and other new technologies are powerful tools to receive direct input from many of these rural farmers and I think there’s a strong desire for many of these communities to be able to have this type of dialogue. So we are very much grateful for your work. It’s especially important for women and youth because it’s also a way of hearing their voices when many times they do not have these channels to do it.

KP: When I think about the mandate of IFAD and indeed the Sustainable Development Goal around hunger the word scale comes to mind. It’s not enough to have small projects. They can be very valuable, they can pilot new approaches, but ultimately things have to happen at a systems level. You spoke about the need to transform the food system. What do you think organizations like Farm Radio and others can do to help make an impact at scale that also acknowledges the reality that every local area has unique features?

AL: At IFAD we believe that development starts with the people themselves. We work with national and local governments, with rural communities themselves, to understand what and where support is needed and where we as an organization can bring the most value. Our projects focus on expanding potential and providing access to markets, access to finance, access to resources. When people can access training or finance or information, this helps them in starting their own business, in learning how to make their dreams become a reality. And I think this drive is that we really want to push and to inspire with many of our interactions and our interventions.

About Alvaro Lario
Alvaro Lario is President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). A seasoned international development finance leader, he has more than 20 years of experience across academia, private sector asset management, World Bank Group and the United Nations, including as Associate Vice-President of Financial Operations at IFAD.

Kevin Perkins is the Executive Director of Farm Radio International.

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