Gilbert Houngbo took over the presidency of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in April this year, following posts with other UN agencies and a four-year term as prime minister of Togo.
At the UK parliament last week (October 31), the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture hosted Houngbo for a talk on how IFAD is supporting rural communities as a provider of financing to smallholders through government loans. There’s a need to go beyond agriculture, he said, to achieve a “rural transformation” so that people are motivated to stay rather than move to cities. Houngbo spoke to SciDev.Net about what that transformation means and about making the necessary technologies not just available, but affordable.
You spoke about the need for a rural transformation, not just improving agriculture — what does that look like to you?It doesn't matter who you are — if you find yourself in a rural area, where you don't have reliable energy, or reliable internet access, or to just go into the city and come back is a pain, or your kids cannot go to the central school… of course you're going to look for leaving that rural setting as soon as you can. Let's be honest. It doesn't matter if you improve your productivity by ten-fold or not. So for me it's really about starting to make the rural area an area to have a decent life. Of course with a focus on agriculture as a way of earning enough income, as well as starting to create more non-farm activities. It's what I would call a comprehensive concept.
How does technology fit into this bigger vision and IFAD’s loans?
Technology is essential. What I'm advocating is for technology to be not only available, but affordable. So sometimes our [IFAD’s] loans to the government can be a way to help producers access that technology. Let me give you a clear example. Technology could be access to Internet. And therefore the loan that governments take can be used to make sure that you have wi-fi at the rural level; or to increase the availability of small solar electricity. Another dimension of making technology available is purely making sure that information is accessible to smallholders, and that there is training for them to know what technology is best to use. It can be in terms of how you want to plant, for example.
Are there particular examples where that has worked?
In IFAD we have several countries where we helped introduce improved planting techniques that have been developed by the government in Brazil [through the EMBRAPA (Agricultural Innovation Marketplace) programme].Before that can happen — and that's part of South-South cooperation — you need to make sure that your farmers know how to use the equipment. You cannot force them. They have to say “yes, I really want to have this”. So preparing that ground is a non-lending activity first. Sometimes it's also the know-how that you bring from one country to another.
You talked about making the actual farming work less painful. Do you have specific improvements in mind?
For me this is where I almost 100 per cent link it to the technology. You just have to go to some countries in Africa or Asia, and you will notice that the equipment being used is still so rudimentary. There's no way you're going to interest a youngster today, who has access to social media, to go and do that for a living. So technology is important for all the equipment you need — from preparing the soil to planting, improved seed, small irrigation, and having that small-solar access so that in the evening you can listen to music or charge your cellphone, or produce an activity that complements your farming… And it is not just about having the technology, it's being able to produce it at a cost that's much more affordable. Because if poor smallholders see technology that is “nice but don't even think about it, this is five years of savings for me”, they won't even think it's something they want to have.
What needs to happen for that cost to drop?
It's the scientific research first. And also sometimes the international community, such as IFAD, contributing to really make the matter known, so that the private sector can start making the necessary adjustments from an impact investment perspective — with a scenario where those companies that are developing that technology can make their money, but maybe at a return rate lower than what usually they would expect.
This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.