Abu Dhabi - Paternalistic thinking from Western firms would not solve Africa’s agricultural problems, which needed to be addressed from African viewpoints, Zambian Agriculture Minister Robert Sichinga told a global forum this week.

Four out of five panellists who debated the issue at the two-day agricultural forum in Abu Dhabi were non-Africans. South African Johan Steyn, the managing director of Cargill Middle East and Africa, was the only one from the continent.

“One of the challenges that Africa has is that the world thinks it can think for us,” Sichinga said when the floor of the forum was opened to questions on Tuesday.

“Please, for goodness sake, move away from this paternalistic attitude.”

Sichinga said that, while Steyn was from South Africa, he was representing Cargill, and “with all due respect, there is no way Cargill can be part of a solution”.

The minister took issue with the unlisted US firm, one of the biggest agricultural commodities companies, paying farmers in Zambia low prices for their cotton crop.

Steyn later said that Cargill was working with small-scale farmers in Zambia and assisting with seeds, chemicals and fertilisers to help them develop their businesses.

Farmers had grown cotton in the hope of receiving high prices for their crop on the back of sharp gains in the 2011/12 season but when world prices dropped by about 46 percent after harvest, farmers received less for their cotton.

“But then we started seeing more farmers grow maize and we support all that production, whether it is cotton or maize or other crops,” Steyn said.

“It is just a growing phase in which small-scale farmers are learning how to be part of the global economy.”

In contrast, Sichinga criticised the forum’s focus on hi-tech solutions for agriculture that were irrelevant to Africa.

“Who will pay for this technology and equipment and salaries that are needed for researchers not to migrate to other countries?” he asked.

The forum included presentations by Mark Post, a physiology professor at Maastricht University, who was behind laboratory-grown beef that cost e250 000 (R3.8 million) and five years of research to produce.

“Are you sure we can use now the new burger made out of stem cell technology? Is that what you expect of someone in a village with less than primary education to undertake?” Sichinga asked. – Reuters