Sifelani Tsiko THE INTERVIEW
Dr David Chimimba Phiri, who assumed office as Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) sub-regional coordinator for Southern Africa on April 15, 2013, is leaving the country to take up a new role in East Africa under the same organisation. He was heavily involved in mobilising resources for humanitarian, drought recovery and mitigation efforts for the entire region when it was hit by one of the worst droughts in the 2015 – 2016 cropping season. In this report, Sifelani Tsiko (ST), our senior writer, speaks to Dr Phiri (DP) on his tenure and lessons learnt from his work in the region.
ST: Your five -year tenure of office is coming to an end. How would you describe your tenure here in Zimbabwe?
DP: I have had a very successful tenure over the past five years. I believe we have achieved a lot with the Government and I have received wonderful cooperation both from Government and our development partners. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with the Government on a number of draft policies. I would describe my tenure as very successful.
ST: What would you regard as the major achievements in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa?
DP: With respect to Zimbabwe we have supported the Government in mobilising resources for its programmes. Some of the programmes had to do with developing various agricultural policies. During the five years we have managed to help the Government together with the World Food Programme and UNICEF. We mobilised more than US$150 million for the Government of Zimbabwe. The funding mostly came from development partners, DFID, European Union, Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC)as well as the Japanese Government. This figure includes almost six million of FAO’s own resources that have been used to support the different programmes. We have worked closely with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement and the Ministry of Environment, Water and Climate. Our greatest achievement was to roll out agricultural intensification programmes in forestry, irrigation as well as on livelihoods issues. We have supported Government with development of policies such as food and nutrition security, irrigation and mechanisation policy which is still being finalised and the livestock policy. We have also initiated the review of land policy at the request of the Government.
We have been working with SADC but also COMESA — both these organisations and their member-states through a programme that is implemented by FAO which is supported by the African Solidarity Front Trust. The programme was basically to help the countries prepare themselves for transboundary pest and diseases and to get the measures for them to control these diseases. We have supported the whole of Southern Africa in the management of army worm, tomato leaf miner disease, avian influenza, food and mouth disease, anthrax and other diseases. One of the proudest achievements is how we supported the countries to respond to the EI-NINO drought of 2015–2016. This was probably one of the worst drought. It caused a lot of hardships, but no one died from hunger because of the way the FAO, governments and partners worked to avert hunger in the region. Some 40 million people needed food assistance and efforts were made to reach out to them.
ST: What do you think were some of the challenges you faced in implementing some of the programmes in the country and Southern Africa?
DP: Challenges were few, but the climatic changes that we had particularly in 2015-2016 with the drought, made it difficult for us to demonstrate some of the successes that could have been achieved had the drought not ravaged the region. So we had demonstration plots and a number of programmes on livelihoods. A lot of work was done in this area and these projects could have become extremely successful were it not for the drought. Several other projects could have been more successful had there not been a drought. The challenges were fairly few. The issue of cash shortages affected some of the project implementation but where the UN was concerned this was minimised by the great assistance that the Government provided us.
ST: Zimbabwe and most other Southern African countries were hit hardest by the El Nino – induced drought in the 2015 – 2016 cropping season. What is your comment on this phenomenon? How would you describe your role in all humanitarian efforts for Zimbabwe and the entire southern Africa region? What lessons can we draw from this worst drought in decades?
DP: The EI-Nino drought was the worst in 50 years. More than 44 million people were affected in Southern Africa due to the drought. Crop yields became very low and a lot of animals died across the sub region. As FAO we worked heavily in the areas of food and agriculture. We worked closely with SADC and member-states to dampen the potential impact that it could have had. Our previous work on resilience that we have been talking about and implementing over many years in Southern Africa in support of countries paid off during this EI-Nino. Because had the same magnitude of EI-Nino taken place 20 years ago there would have been a famine with a lot of people dying, but in this case not a single person died. Governments put in place mechanisms for assisting their people. FAO and other partners put in place mechanisms to support governments to support their people. But above all the majority of the people were able to withstand the shock because of the resilience programmes that we had been rolling out over time. Resilience building is important and it pays off. There is a lesson that climate change is real and we need to take it seriously. Governments should do well to plan as if every year is a potentially bad year. A good example, is of this growing season, were we had predicted that rainfall was going to be normal to above normal. It happened but the distribution of the rainfall was so skewed that for at least one month at a very crucial period of the growing season we all thought we were seeing hell, an imminent drought of huge proportions that was likely to destroy crops and livestock as well as our drought recovery programs. Despite all this fear, some crops managed to recover but not all, when the rains finally came.
ST: Zimbabwe and most other Africa countries still shoulder a disproportionate share of the hunger and poverty. How best can Africa fight hunger and poverty to help attain SDG goals on food security?
DP: In terms of proportion of people facing hunger, Africa is among the highest. In terms of numbers, South Asia is higher than Africa in terms of people who are hungry. But the fact remains that we have a disproportionate share of the hunger and poverty levels globally. This has decreased overtime and we should acknowledge the work of the governments. It is not decreasing at the same rate as other countries so we need to do more. We need to step up our policies. They need to put their money where their mouth is.
They need to invest in agriculture. In my view this starts with a national development policy that emphasises agriculture and food security. Zimbabwe is lucky in that regard because in its Zim-Asset, food security and nutrition is clearly a number one priority for government. All that needs to be done by many other countries is to just put more money into agriculture. But just putting money into agriculture without defining proper institutional and policy framework for implementation is not enough. So, it is very important that Zimbabwe and other countries have very good implementable policies that should be implemented in the interest of agriculture, rural development and food security.
ST: Do you think the political will is there to fight hunger and poverty here in Africa? Are African governments spending as much as they should on agriculture and food security?
DP: There is more political will now than there used to be. I think the Maputo Declaration of 2003 where countries, Heads of State and Government agreed to put 10 percent of their national budget into agriculture and rural development. I think this is a testimony of the political will. This was reiterated in the Malabo Declaration of 2014. The Dar e Salaam Declaration for the SADC region is also testimony of the political will. However, political will alone will not solve the problem. That political will needs to be converted to reality on the ground by for example increasing the budget that goes into agriculture and food security far more than it currently is.
ST: What do you think is the role of African researchers in finding solutions to some of the pressing food security problems on the continent? Do you think they are getting the necessary support to carry out their work?
DP: African researchers have made a lot of in-roads into solving their own problems because we have for long depended on solutions found in other continents and applicability here is not always a given. It is good that they do the research in their own environment. It is happening but needs to be stepped up. But this is part of the issue of putting resources where the mouth is, in the sense that if agriculture as a whole is provided with a lot more resource I think research will be provided also with the resources. We should always mind the fact that Africa does not always have to start their own research, there is a lot of research going on but I think the question is to use our own resources more and to see how we can apply some of that research in Africa rather than starting the will over again.
ST: Are you happy with media coverage of agriculture and food security matters here in Zimbabwe and the rest of Southern Africa? How can the UN FAO and the media improve the coverage of food security issues on the continent?
DP: I am happy with the media coverage in Zimbabwe. The media that covers our work on agriculture and food security always put us in the lime light but in Southern Africa there could be an improvement overall. On improving the relations with FAO and the media, we should get the media more involved in our work by inviting them to our meetings that discuss our work and inviting them to see on the ground on what we do. We have started well and we need to continue with this path.
ST: Do you think Africa’s specific needs are getting attention at the UN FAO and global level? Are our concerns being addressed as Africa?
DP: Africa is the biggest continent in terms of FAOs programme. More than 40 percent of the resources of all the program resources of FAO go to Africa. It is a testimony that the global FAO puts on Africa. Our heavy presence here shows that commitment because Africa still has a relatively high proportion of hungry people compared to other parts of the world. If we are going to have Zero Hunger by 2030 a lot more needs to be done in Africa. As a global FAO, we have done well. It is also at the UN level, where there are a lot of initiatives specifically focused on Africa and mostly done by Africans.
The emphasis that we as Africa needed is there and political leadership is also acknowledging this. An example of the fact that African leadership itself recognises that they need to do something for themselves is reflected in the continent having decided to establish their own fund which is called Africa Solidarity Trust Fund. It is supposed to be provided for by Africa governments themselves and to solve African problems in the area of agriculture and food security. The first replenishment of this fund was USD$40 million of which southern Africa benefited $4 million. This is about 10 percent of the fund which the region used for crop and animal disease control, food safety and improving international trade in southern Africa. Some of the funds were given to some countries to support youth employment in Africa as a whole but also to improve gender capabilities in the region. So Africans understand the need to help themselves. I do hope that African countries will keep subscribing to this fund because it is for their own good.
ST: Some commentators say Africa can feed itself. What is your comment on this?
DP: Africa can feed itself and it should. There is a lot of water, land and wonderful climate. There is no reason why it can’t feed itself. We need to focus more on turning our political commitment into action. We need to take implementation seriously. Africa should be the place apart from exporting coffee, tea, sugar and so on, it should be able to also export food to the rest of the world because we have huge potential.
ST: What do you intend to do next after your tenure here in Zimbabwe?
DP: I have been appointed to another challenging position as sub regional coordinator of Eastern Africa for FAO. I would be based in Addis Ababa. In that role I will also be a representative of FAO to the African Union and to the UN Economic Commission for Africa. I take it as a great privilege that my director general has appointed me to this very important position at a city which is the cradle of civilisation, the political capital of Africa. From there I think I should also be able to support the whole of Africa.
ST: Zimbabwe has been your home for the last 5 years. What memories are you going to carry about Zimbabwe? How were your relations with the local fraternity that you worked with?
DP. It has been an excellent home for me with very warm people, wonderful weather, excellent relations with the government and partners. I have enjoyed every bit of my stay here either working or socially. It has been a great satisfaction to see some of our work making people smile. I am so proud that FAO managed to contribute to make these people happy. We also had very supportive donors, the EU, SDC, UK’s DFID, the Japanese government among others. Something also unique in Zimbabwe is the quality of the staff l had. I had the privilege to lead staff who were committed, hardworking and intelligent. I have been to many tourist resort spots but Victoria Falls was the best to me. Its more enchanting and I would encourage tourists to at least visit the place once in their life time. It’s like a Mecca, one should visit in their lifetime. For all the places I visited, I will always remember Victoria Falls the most.
ST: Finally, Zimbabwe is now under a new dispensation and President Mnangagwa has been spearheading various efforts to re-engage the international community and woo investors back into the country. What is your comment on new developments here in Zimbabwe?
DP: I congratulate Zimbabwe for transitioning so peacefully and decisively. The change has been positive and the new leadership has shown great commitment to transform the country for the better. This is a welcome development and a sign of where the country wants to go, not only for people of this country but to the sub-region as a whole. It gives hope not only to the population of Zimbabwe but also to the sub-region as a whole. Zimbabwe is at the centre of the sub-region geographically and whatever happens to it affects many countries. The success of Zimbabwe is the success of many other countries in Southern Africa. So I wish the leadership well as they move into this new dispensation.