The Fertile Continent

Africa, Agriculture's Final Frontier

Courtesy Reuters

Throughout this past summer, in the long-suffering hills of western Rwanda, legions of farmers toiled at their sloped plots. With hoes and axes, they crafted flat, wide terraces and a simple water-management system that would keep valuable topsoil in place. Their efforts were part of a $800 million investment program supported by the United States and other international donors that is meant to boost Rwanda's agricultural production and reduce its dependence on food aid. The farmers were reshaping their land in the hope that a new watershed, along with better-quality seeds and fertilizer, would double or triple their harvests of corn, potatoes, beans, and rice by the next season.

As he patrolled the hillsides one day last June, Innocent Musabyimana, the project's manager in the Ministry of Agriculture, expressed a kind of desperate optimism. "To make our agriculture sustainable, we have to do this," he said. "Ninety percent of the country is like this, all hills. If we don't do anything, in 40 years, with the erosion, the farms will be gone." Musabyimana opened his arms wide. "This," he said, taking in the sweeping panorama, "is our future."

He meant the future of Rwanda and the future of Africa. But he might as well have been talking about the future of the world, too. For what is happening on the hills near Lake Kivu is at the vanguard of an effort to reverse years of neglect in agricultural development, tackle widespread chronic hunger, and satisfy the world's ever-expanding appetite.

Malthusian predictions that relentless population growth will outstrip food production and trigger starvation worldwide have recurred over the centuries. They have come and then gone as farmers have deployed new technologies to increase food output. Even now, enough food is being produced to adequately feed every person on the planet; the fact that nearly one billion people are nonetheless going hungry is a damning indictment of the world's food-distribution system. But since demand is growing, production will also have to increase in the years

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