Tanzania's president is waging a war on hunger — and while he's at it, he wants to modernize his East African nation's agricultural sector to lift millions of his countrymen out of poverty.
But Jakaya Kikwete's biggest constraint is a lack of resources.
"If somebody says, 'What is your wish?' I'd say, 'If I got a billion dollars a month in terms of government revenue, I can turn Tanzania into heaven,'" Mr. Kikwete told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview.
He doesn't have that luxury, so he has turned to the international community for help.
Mr. Kikwete, 61, was one of four African leaders invited to attend a summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations at Camp David last week. The other three were from Ghana, Ethiopia and Benin.
"The overriding message that we brought here is: Assist Africa. Transform its agriculture," Mr. Kikwete said. "We underscored the fact that indeed there is cause for concern for food security and nutrition security in Africa."
Africa accounts for about 236 million hungry people, more than one-fourth of the world's total, according to U.N. statistics.
In Tanzania, malnutrition is the cause of high rates of infant and maternal mortality, and stunted, anemic children.
"There is a problem, and a serious one, that needs a solution," Mr. Kikwete said.
"And the solution to problems of hunger and nutrition first and foremost is to ensure food security," he said. "How do you ensure food security and nutrition security? You deal with the agriculture question."
Between 70 percent and 80 percent of Tanzania's population lives in rural areas. Agriculture is their mainstay.
Agricultural practices are untouched by modernity. Farmers still use handheld hoes to till the land, are overly dependent on rain to irrigate crops, sow low-yield seeds, and don't use adequate amounts of fertilizer and pesticides.
"Unfortunately, our agriculture in Africa is characterized by backwardness," Mr. Kikwete said. "We are not producing enough to meet our own food requirements ... and our people are not producing enough to overcome poverty."
In Tanzania, the challenge is "little application of modern science and technology in agriculture," he added.
Increasing productivity of Africa's farms not only would reduce the levels of hunger and malnutrition, it also would increase incomes.
Tanzania is 95 percent food self-sufficient, but it is located in a difficult place.
"Our biggest problem in the country is the neighborhood," Mr. Kikwete said.
To its north, Kenya has endured three to four years of drought that has forced it to look to Tanzania for food. Parts of Somalia are in the grip of a famine, while South Sudan faces significant food shortages.
The high demand has strained Tanzania's food supply and pushed domestic prices sky high.
Mr. Kikwete sees in this challenge an opportunity. He has instructed the Ministry of Agriculture to increase production of food, particularly corn and rice, to have enough to feed Tanzanians, as well as export.
His government set up the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania in a part of the country that gets the most rain and has ideal soil and climate conditions. If all goes according to plan, the corridor will create 420,000 jobs and produce an annual income of $1.2 billion.
"If we can succeed, we will lift millions and millions of people out of poverty very quickly," Mr. Kikwete said.
Agriculture is not high on the list of priorities for most international donors. Two decades ago, they gave $18 billion to Africa for the agriculture sector. That dropped to $3 billion three years ago, and has crept up to about $6 billion today.
Tanzania has turned to the private sector to supplement the international community's contributions.
The G-8 announced over the weekend a "New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition" to accelerate the flow of private capital to African agriculture.
President Obama separately announced that 45 private-sector companies had committed to invest more than $3 billion in agricultural projects and programs that will help millions of small-scale farmers in Africa.
Tanzania has received $698 million from the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent U.S. foreign-aid agency that helps lead the fight against global poverty. That five-year grant ends next year.
Mr. Kikwete is eager to get a U.S. commitment for a second phase.
Under the first phase, roads were built, villages were electrified and water was supplied to two major cities, Morogoro and the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam.
In the second phase, Mr. Kikwete wants to keep the focus on rural electrification and water supply.
"We have expressed the wish, and they have expressed readiness to talk, so let's see what comes out of the discussions," he said.
"We are seeing the American side be responsive," he added.
Daniel Yohannes, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), has high praise for the way Tanzania handled the first phase of this grant.
"President Kikwete has been instrumental to the success of Tanzania's MCC compact," Mr. Yohannes said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies last week.
Despite such praise, Mr. Kikwete knows that the state of the global economy will determine how much money international donors will be willing to offer.
"We accept the reality that we will not get much, and already aid has declined, but we think we may not lose everything," he said. "We don't see signs on the part of the U.S. government to abandon the poor."
Mr. Obama has said the U.S. will keep its commitments to end world hunger.
Tanzania has reason to be optimistic about its future: Large reserves of oil and natural gas were discovered recently.
Mr. Kikwete is determined not to let this potential resource windfall become a liability, as it has done for many other African nations.
"We know in ... a number of countries in Africa, these resources ... have turned into a curse instead of being something useful," he said.
"We will try as much as we can to learn from what has gone wrong with some of our friends, and let's see if we can do better," he said. "I am hopeful that we will."
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
Ashish Kumar Sen is a reporter covering foreign policy and international developments for The Washington Times.
Prior to joining The Times, Mr. Sen worked for publications in Asia and the Middle East. His work has appeared in a number of publications and online news sites including the British Broadcasting Corp., Asia Times Online and Outlook magazine.
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