Field of dreams: on a maize farm near Bangui, Central African Republic, March 2014.
THOMAS KOEHLER / PHOTOTHEK VIA GETTY IMAGES

African agriculture has long been a symbol of the continent’s poverty. Officials considered the hundreds of millions of African smallholder farmers too backward to thrive; the future would arrive not by investing in them but rather by bypassing them. But all that is changing.

In recent years, African agricultural policies have been haphazard and inconsistent. Some countries have neglected smallholders in favor of commercial farmers. Others have given them attention but focused narrowly on increasing their productivity. African farms’ harvests are indeed much smaller than harvests elsewhere, so increasing productivity is important. But agriculture is about more than yields. A vast food system spreads beyond farm and table to touch almost every aspect of life in every society. Making that system in Africa as robust as possible will not merely prevent starvation. It will also fight poverty, disease, and malnutrition; create businesses and jobs; and boost the continent’s economies and improve its trade balances.

Food systems cannot be created quickly out of whole cloth. They tend to evolve incrementally over time. But in digital technology, today’s African leaders have a powerful tool they can deploy to help clear away the primary obstacle to progress: the profound isolation

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  • KOFI ANNAN was UN Secretary-General from 1997 to 2006. 

SAM DRYDEN is a Senior Fellow at Imperial College London and was Director of Agricultural Development in the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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