Korea vows to boost agricultural investments in 'land of hope'

Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Song Mi-ryung speaks during the 2024 Korea-Africa Agricultural Conference at The Plaza Hotel Seoul, Wednesday. Courtesy of Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Song Mi-ryung speaks during the 2024 Korea-Africa Agricultural Conference at The Plaza Hotel Seoul, Wednesday. Courtesy of Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture minister pledges to spur K-Ricebelt, increase food aid and technical support in Africa
By Ko Dong-hwan

Korea will bolster investments in Africa, viewing the continent as a burgeoning mega-market for agricultural products and technologies with hopes to forge stronger diplomatic ties with countries there in exchange for access to the region's abundant mineral reserves, according to the country's top agricultural policymaker, Wednesday.

Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Song Mi-ryung said there is a growing need to respond to African countries' need for food security and hoped the ministry will play a critical role in strengthening Korea's multilateral ties with countries there in such areas of difficulty.

The ministry has been actively meeting this challenge through official development assistance (ODA) projects like the K-Ricebelt initiative, which provides crucial technical support to Africa for local rice farming.

"Africa will have the world's biggest population eligible for productive engagement in the future," Song said during an opening ceremony for 2024 Korea-Africa Agricultural Conference hosted by the ministry in Seoul, calling the continent "a land of hope."

"Korea possesses a broad spectrum of fields in which it can collaborate with African nations, spanning from cutting-edge agricultural technologies and smart farming to enhancing rice production, manufacturing agricultural food products and elevating the quality of life," she said.

Song stressed that Korea's ODA initiatives toward Africa align with one of President Yoon Suk Yeol's objectives. In 2022, the year of his inauguration, Yoon hosted Africa Night, unveiling for the first time his plan to create a summit for African countries in Korea.

The ministry, in collaboration with its agricultural research institute, the Rural Development Administration (RDA), has been actively engaged in ODA initiatives across the continent through programs like the K-Ricebelt. Additionally, the RDA's projects, such as the Korea Partnership for Innovation of Agriculture (KOPIA) and Korea-Africa Food and Agriculture Cooperation (KAFACI), further bolster Korea's presence and impact in agricultural development throughout Africa.

"President Yoon has already proclaimed his will to accompany African nations through their anticipated growth," Song said. "And it's my job to buttress what the president has pledged."

During the conference, she signed memoranda of understanding with Madagascar, Malawi, Angola and Zimbabwe to extend the K-Ricebelt project there. This expanded the total number of African countries involved in the project to 14.

Following the conference, Song participated in the Korea-Africa Business Summit, reiterating the significance of fostering mutual understanding grounded in Korea's agricultural assets and Africa's abundant minerals.

"Korea received support from African countries during the Korean War," Song said. "In the war's aftermath, Korea invested in agricultural technologies and launched the Saemaul Movement nationwide to modernize the country's rural economy back in the 1970s. On the back of those experiences, Korea is ready to work with Africa."

Korea started signing diplomatic treaties with African nations in the 1960s following the war, starting with Niger, Benin, Chad, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire and Congo. With the addition of South Sudan to the list in 2011, Korea achieved a significant milestone by establishing diplomatic ties with all 54 African nations.

Members of the Republic of Korea Joint Support Group for the South Sudan and residents of Bor  plant rice seeds in  seedbeds, May 31, as part of the Korean military group's efforts to resolve a food shortage in the city. Courtesy of Joint Chiefs of Staff

Members of the Republic of Korea Joint Support Group for the South Sudan and residents of Bor plant rice seeds in seedbeds, May 31, as part of the Korean military group's efforts to resolve a food shortage in the city. Courtesy of Joint Chiefs of Staff

K-Ricebelt

Food trade between Korea and Africa has remained steady. Africa's primary exports include coffee beans, cocoa and seafood, while Korea predominantly exports instant noodles and instant coffee mixes. Recently, Korean mackerel has seen a surge in demand from the continent. Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, and Ghana have emerged as the top importers, collectively accounting for $96 million in trade volume last year.

Building upon the enduring commercial ties, the ministry has been advancing ODA initiatives in Africa through three principal avenues: the K-Ricebelt, humanitarian aid and technical cooperation. While each of these directions shares the overarching objective of fortifying the continent's food security, they employ distinct strategies to achieve this goal.

The K-Ricebelt project introduces a comprehensive assistance encompassing the development of high-yielding rice varieties, distribution of rice seeds and the establishment of the rice seed cultivation complexes.

On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol mentioned the project's importance during the Korea-Africa Summit in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, saying Korea will "expand its ODA in food sustainability to counter food insecurity Africa is facing right now."

The project's trial version was initiated last year across six African countries, yielding a total harvest of 2,321 tons. This year marks the full-fledged launch of the project in Ghana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Cameroon, Uganda and Kenya, with a target to produce 3,000 tons.

One of the ministry's key goals regarding the K-Ricebelt this year is to test the rice seeds developed last year with local farmers.

"We're determined to educate local farmers about the new rice varieties this year," Song said. "We'll invite 70 government officials from seven African countries to Seoul this year for field studies and lessons here. Twenty officials from Ghana and Gambia already paid visits here last month."

Food aid

To resolve imminent starvation issues in some African countries, the ministry in 2018 started donating Korean rice to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) to reach out to poverty-stricken Africans and refugees on the continent.

This year, the ministry doubled the amount of its aid to 100,000 tons from last year. Eight African coutnries — Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Mauritania and Mozambique — started receiving the aid this year, an increase from three countries the previous year.

Song during the conference emphasized Korea's transformation from a war-torn nation that once received food aid from the WFP to becoming a provider of assistance through the same organization.

"We've increased our humdanitarian aid amount from 50,000 tons but it still isn't enough to cater to rising demand for food aid from other African nations," Song said. "We'll gradually increase our aid to Africa, with rice being our key item."

Technical cooperation

In order to foster sustainability and self-reliance in food production among African nations, the ministry has entrusted the RDA with the task of providing technical support to these countries. This initiative commenced in 2009 with the establishment of the KOPIA Kenya Center, marking the RDA's inaugural African support center.

As of this year, KOPIA has expanded to Cameroon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Senegal and Uganda, bringing Korean experts to research local soil, develop the most suitable natural produce and introduce required techniques. The researchers target not just rice but also maize, potatoes, oranges, tomatoes, sesame seeds and poultry.

Running parallel to its other initiatives, the RDA has been engaged in KAFACI projects with 23 African nations. This initiative primarily focuses on researching rice development. Newly developed and certified rice seeds through KAFACI subsequently become integral components of the K-Ricebelt project. The new high-yield varieties include six ISRIZ types in Senegal, five ZaKafaci types in Zambia, five CRI types in Ghana, three KATETA types in Rwanda and three KAFACI types in Mali.

"In Uganda, our new rice varieties KAFAC-39 and NARORICE have more than doubled the productivity of local rice harvest and increased local farmers' revenues by 231 percent," Song said.

Ko Dong-hwan aoshima11@koreatimes.co.kr

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