Lessons from “The New Harvest” on how academics can turn their work into policy

At the continental level the book contributed to discussions that led to two African Union summits on agriculture and food security. Embassy of Equatorial Guinea/Flickr

It is the fifth anniversary of the publication of “The New Harvest”. First published in 2011, it is a groundbreaking book which promotes agricultural innovation across the African continent. The Conversation Africa’s Samantha Spooner asked the author, Calestous Juma, about its impact and how other academics can make their work relevant to policy and action.

What is the central message of “The New Harvest”?

The central argument of the book is that Africa can feed itself in a generation. But achieving this goal will require fundamental shifts in the way agriculture is viewed and supported.

In much of Africa, agriculture and the economy are one and the same. It is very difficult to expand the overall economy without growing agriculture. A key insight from this perspective is that the purpose of agriculture is not just to meet food security needs. A country can achieve food security through imports. It addresses the needs of the 60-70% of the people who are dependent on agriculture for on-farm and off-farm employment.

Changing the situation entails defining agriculture as a technology-based, innovation-driven, and entrepreneurial economy. Defining it this way also makes it easier to attract young people with modern expertise into this economy. The use of the term “farming” projects negative connotations of marginalised people except for a few who own large farms. The term “agribusiness”, which was coined in the US in 1956 for nearly similar reasons, is a better reflection of this economy.

Who were your anticipated audience and why?

Initially it was to help high level policymakers, especially presidents and prime ministers, define agricultural innovation as a driver for overall economic transformation.

The book identifies key agricultural activities such as fostering economic growth, advancing science and technology, building infrastructure, providing technical education, and expanding regional and international trade. The bulk of these functions fall outside the purview of agriculture ministries and provides the rationale for the involvement of leaders with the power to coordinate across a large array of actors – from the private sector, academia, and civil society.

How did you secure the attention of presidents and prime ministers given their busy schedules?

There are three factors that helped us to gain the attention of African leaders.

  1. The book was published in the middle of the 2010-2011 food crises in the Horn of Africa which were of the worst in history. It was clear from the magnitude of the crisis that, due to resources and logistical capacity, classical food relief was no longer viable and local solutions were needed.

  2. African leaders were becoming acutely aware of connections between agriculture and other system-wide phenomena such as climate change. It became obvious that food security was not just a sectoral issue to be addressed my agriculture ministries but a threat to overall national security.

  3. There were a few presidential or institutional champions willing to support the book. We worked closely with Ambassador Juma Mwapachu, then Secretary General of the East African Community (EAC). The draft of the book was launched on December 2, 2010, ahead of the public release in 2011, by the five EAC heads of state and government at the Retreat on Food Security and Climate Change. In addition, the book was endorsed by the presidents of Burkina Faso, Liberia, Nigeria and Costa Rica. We also had endorsements from winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics and the World Food Prize.

Five years later, what impact has it had? Have you seen policy makers make use of it and how?

The goal of the book was to invest in thinking. It doesn’t have a list of recommendations but generates options for action that are backed by evidence. We chose to forgo credit by adopting this approach, but it’s been very encouraging to see some key impacts that acknowledge the book.

The Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), for example, created a new programme on science, technology, and innovation that was influenced by the book. It also created a science and innovation advisory council inspired by the book. In addition, it is creating a university to help build capacity in regional economic integration.

In some cases the book helped to reinforce ongoing national discussions. Nigeria’s efforts to diversify its agriculture drew some input from the book. The efforts included increased investment in rural infrastructure.

At the continental level the book contributed to discussions that led to two African Union summits on agriculture and food security. The adoption of the 10-year Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) benefited from the analytical framework laid out in the book.

We will only know the full impact of the book when those who took the risk to try out some of its ideas can report on their achievements.

In terms of how academics can make their research relevant to policy and action, what lessons has this taught you?

A few lessons stand out for me.

  1. The timing of the book and the magnitude of the challenge that was being addressed. The Horn of Africa famine had brought to a close the old food aid paradigm, and the world, not just Africa, was open for alternative ideas, even if they were not necessarily new.

  2. We chose to simply share information rather than advocate certain approaches. By following this approach, we could not also go around trying to influence how to use the book. Our main obligation was to offer lessons from around the world, not just a new set of theories. This helped us to give prominence to themes such as infrastructure and university reform.

  3. We provide a clear and compelling message that Africa could feed itself in a generation, and we then laid out the option of how it could be done by drawing from worldwide experiences. But we also did something else. We provided a systems framework that can be used in any sector of the economy.

  4. We started working with prospective champions while writing the book. We found them, sought their input, and consulted them along the way. By the time the book was published we had champions, at times presidents, ready to go.

  5. I didn’t act alone. I was supported by an advisory group that not only helped me to define the contents, but also guided me on strategy.

  6. We prepared a book that served as a living document. We revised it every year to update the statistics. Soon it became clear that a new edition was needed to accommodate the rapid changes that had occurred in Africa in just a few years.