It's estimated that 820 million people in the developing world are undernourished and go to bed hungry each night. Half of the world, nearly 3 billion people, lives on less than the equivalent of $2 a day. And of the 82 countries in the world that are low income and food deficient, nearly half are in Africa.
So it was a matter of when, says World Agricultural Forum President Ray Cesca, not if the St. Louis-based organization would hold its first regional Congress outside the United States — in Africa.
“We've been to Africa, and we've seen the needs there,” Cesca said in an interview shortly after the World Agriculture Forum announced the Republic of Uganda would host the WAF's Regional Congress in Kampala Sept. 3-5. “Once you enter Africa, you don't leave. We will continue to follow the progress of what we start.”
Cesca said countries on other continents wanted the first regional Congress to be held outside the United States for themselves, but Africa made the most compelling case.
“We had representatives of countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa attending our Congress in St. Louis last May,” said Cesca. “But the African delegates made the most impassioned plea that we bring the Congress to their continent.”
One delegate, Hillary Onek, the minister of agriculture for Uganda, who was attending his first Congress, left a meeting session to place a call to the president of Uganda to ask him to consider hosting the event.
“He was so impressed with the Forum he called the president right then and insisted that Uganda began working to host the Congress,” said Cesca. (The World Agricultural Forum has been holding the Congresses in St. Louis every other year but will hold the event in Uganda in 2008.)
Cesca, a former executive with McDonald's Corp., flew to Uganda last August to meet with government officials, and the rest, as they say, is history. Uganda's leaders say they felt the time is right for such an event in Africa.
“Africa, as a whole, is enjoying the highest growth rates in 30 years,” said Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni in a statement. “Our continent is breaking old paradigms in order to integrate profitably into the global economy and liberate itself.
“We are working to build the agricultural infrastructure that will boost our economic standings and transform Africa. Agriculture is vital to Africa's survival, just as this influential meeting of the minds is essential to reveal the emerging new Africa.”
Cesca says the 2008 African Congress will foster open discussions about Africa's “timely agricultural topics. The primary goal is to form more effective partnerships between the participants who represent government, food producers, corporations, academia and non-governmental organizations based on a shared understanding of objectives and responsibilities.”
“It was a high priority of the World Agricultural Forum to host an African Congress,” said James Bolger, former prime minister of New Zealand and ambassador to the United States and current chairman of the World Agricultural Forum's Advisory Board.
“We would like this Congress to highlight current agricultural development in Africa and debate how, with the wise and sustainable use of land and water, Africa can become a key player in meeting the food requirements of a growing world population.”
The Congress will focus on action plans for advancing Africa's agricultural supply chain, agribusinesses, trade policies and related sectors to enable sustainable agriculture to increase economic opportunities for African farmers and their communities, WAF officials said.
Cesca said the World Agricultural Forum believes the Congress could be attended by 10 to 15 African heads of state and will include other decision makers who are responsible for agricultural policy-making, setting priorities and investments in agriculture throughout Africa.
“Political and business leaders located outside the continent will also be invited,” he said. “These leaders will exchange information on African and world agriculture, with particular emphasis on sustainability and the need for changes in world trade policy to enable farmers in developing countries to have fair access to world markets.”
And, while the Congress will look at those “big picture” items, much of the time will be spent on improving the ability of small farmers to compete in local, national and international agriculture markets.
“Biofuels will be an important topic, but we will be discussing how to bring it to the local level,” Cesca said. “How can we help small farmers produce and market biofuel crops?”
Another topic will be micro financing of local farming enterprises. “That will be at the top of the list — how to help small farmers get the necessary loans to improve their production,” he said.
Louis Guarria, a retired Monsanto executive, founded the World Agriculture Forum in St. Louis more than 10 years ago. Guarria has said he wants the WAF to concentrate on feeding villages that have populations of 250 or less.
“Someone has to be a “change-master,'” Cesca says. “Someone has to shake things up, that has to be our vision and our goal. We need new models of bio-fuels and bio-energy.
“Farming is still a noble profession. Farmers need new strategies and they need new vision, knowing they're feeding the people of the world. Agriculture plays such a big role in the global economy, and that's what we are all about.”