Just Keep Listening
I recently returned home from Iowa, where the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World participated in The World Food Prize 2018 Borlaug Dialogue. A rarity among conferences, the Borlaug Dialogue gave voice to actual farmers to discuss their struggles and aspirations. I learned more than I could possibly imagine, just by listening to the farmers I hope to support.
The Borlaug Dialogue, named after Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Norman E. Borlaug, convened over 1,200 experts from 65 countries to address cutting-edge issues related to global food security and nutrition. The symposium assembled farmers, scientists, development practitioners, policy makers, and business executives to reflect on global efforts to address systemic issues of hunger and malnutrition.
This year’s symposium, themed “Rise to the Challenge,” reflected on global efforts to address nutrition and food security, as the world’s population is estimated to surpass 9 billion people by 2050. Improving food security and nutrition impacts nearly every Sustainable Development Goal, directly or indirectly, including those addressing hunger, economic growth, quality education, gender equality, climate action, and peace. Achieving a world in which agricultural systems have the capacity to feed 9 billion people will require an ongoing commitment from the global community. This year’s World Food Prize laureates, Dr. David Nabarro and Dr. Lawrence Haddad, have echoed this mandate through their lifework of prioritizing nutrition on a global scale.
This urgency overlaps with the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI) of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World as we work to enable smallholder tobacco farmers in tobacco-dependent countries to convert from tobacco production toward alternative, more profitable livelihoods. In Malawi, the economy is extraordinarily dependent on tobacco. More than 50% of export value comes from that single crop. However, as demand for tobacco leaf decreases, farmers, businesses, and policy makers must embrace agricultural diversification to raise incomes, improve nutrition, and turn Malawi into the next African economic success story. We take a market-driven approach that puts farmers first by identifying potential markets, capitalizing on productivity-enhancing technologies, and creating inclusive farmer-focused business models.
At the symposium, the Foundation convened a panel entitled, “Agricultural Transformation for African Tobacco Farmers.” This diverse panel comprised people directly involved in agriculture and tobacco production, including smallholder tobacco farmers, scientists, policy makers, and youth (including the 4 Nigerian students—Team Neon—who won the 2017-2018 Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Challenge). The panel discussed a simple premise: that agricultural transformation will succeed when global stakeholders listen to farmers when they tell us what they need to successfully scale their businesses.
The truth is that when we do listen, it becomes clear that one-size-fits-all solutions are not enough. We heard from smallholder farmers Mr. Davies Botha and Ms. Alice Kachere about their struggles to access affordable financing and about the environmental damage tobacco production has caused. Entrepreneur Ms. Maness Nkhata emphasized the need to reframe agriculture as a vibrant business opportunity for Malawi’s tech-savvy youth. Our diverse speakers presented myriad ways Malawi’s economy is just waiting to be unleashed.
This year’s symposium also represented a significant milestone for the Foundation, as it was at last year’s Borlaug Dialogue that the ATI was first introduced publicly by Agriculture and Livelihoods Vice President, Jim Lutzweiler, and Foundation President, Derek Yach. This year, we celebrate that anniversary by announcing a $2 million RFP for commercially driven solutions aimed at transforming smallholder agriculture in Malawi.
The Borlaug Dialogue is evidence that the world is waking up to the importance of market-driven approaches to agricultural transformation and poverty alleviation. Yet, perhaps more significantly, the symposium represents a departure from the status quo as we prioritize the voices of people most directly affected by our work. Farmers know what is best for them; all we need to do is listen.