FAO’s Investment Centre is stepping up its support for creating more robust and sustainable agri-food systems

Mohamed Manssouri, Director of FAO’s Investment Centre discusses the Centre’s work and expansion plans

What’s the FAO Investment Centre?

Simply put, the FAO Investment Centre creates investment solutions in sustainable food and agriculture. The Centre offers a range of investment support services helping countries to create long-term investment policies and plans, to design and implement investment projects with financing partners and to generate knowledge and build capacities related to investment.

Better investment in food and agriculture leads to more efficient and equitable food systems as well as greater resilience in the face of climate change and other shocks such as COVID-19.

What’s new is that FAO members have recently agreed to inject significantly more resources into the Centre – enabling it to expand, provide more in-depth investment support to countries and strengthen its collaboration with international and national financial institutions and other development partners.

As FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said, “together, we are transforming agriculture and food systems through targeted investment, innovation, knowledge and strengthened capacities.”

In the last three years alone, we helped mobilize US$ 19 billion of public investment to create stronger and more sustainable food systems. And in Sub Saharan Africa alone, in 2020 we supported the design of US$ 2 billion new public investments that will provide people with access to healthy food and create jobs. A good example is the Joint Programme to Respond to the Challenges of COVID-19, Conflict and Climate Change, benefitting six countries in the Sahel by investing in agricultural infrastructure, innovative technology as well as human and social capital in cross border areas facing security issues. Both FAO and World Food Programme (WFP) will be supporting the G5 Sahel Secretariat and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in project implementation. The cost of the project is US$ 180 million over six years of which 109 million financed by IFAD and US$ 71 million by the Green Climate Fund.

In 2020, we supported the implementation of projects worldwide in some 120 countries. This consists of providing critical technical support to governments during the projects’ implementation period (typically around five years) to make sure that investments are on track to deliver the desired outcomes. The Centre’s multidisciplinary teams can address implementation issues related to all aspects of agriculture and rural development including infrastructure and irrigation, agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, etc. The Centre also provides support to better soft investments in human and social capital and capacities, governance and institutions, farmer organizations and community development.

You mentioned COVID-19. Could you tell us about the Centre’s work in relation to this?

Countries have been looking to FAO for policy guidance on responding to COVID-19 and technical assistance to ongoing projects. In response, we provided timely policy advice, undertook rapid impact assessments of COVID-19 on food systems to inform countries’ decisions and solutions to mitigating the negative effects of the pandemic on their food and agriculture sector.

With investment partners such as the World Bank – the Centre’s oldest and largest partner - we developed response packages and reoriented ongoing projects to address the COVID-19 challenges.

With the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), we established a ($ 3 million) technical response facility to help the agri-food sector to overcome COVID-19 challenges and to strengthen food systems’ longer-term resilience.

With the European Commission, we are undertaking rapid food systems assessments in many countries – by end of 2021 we aim to reach 61 countries, among the most affected by food insecurity and malnutrition. The assessments are only the first step. The work will help to shape new policy recommendations in food and agriculture, and potential private and public investments in food systems transformations in those countries. We are also working with many partners, including European Development Finance Institutions, to help de-risk investments in the agri-food sector – a sector marked by uncertainty and volatility even at the best of times.

We are also integrating COVID-19 response activities into the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) projects in countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Haiti, Senegal and Yemen.

The Centre has also stepped up its actions to increase visibility and influence public debate on the need for investment in food systems as the world works towards building back better.

We have a good track record of bringing stakeholders together from the public and private sectors, including farmers and their organizations, to discuss policy issues and resolve bottlenecks.

In parallel, the Centre has been key to the rolling out of the poverty-focused Hand-in-Hand Initiative in close to 40 countries.

(Note: more info on the Centre and its work on COVID-19 here).

Apart from supporting the COVID-19 response, could you give some other examples of the Centre’s work and key achievements in 2020?

Despite these difficult times, the Centre succeeded in supporting countries to mobilise public investments worth $ 6.1 billion - $ 500 million more than in 2019 - for over 30 agricultural projects.

Our investment team played a substantial role in the design of a new regional investment project to revitalize economic activities and food systems in six Sahel countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal. The Rome based UN agencies - FAO, IFAD and WFP - partnered with G5 Sahel to strengthen the resilience of rural households in cross-border areas of the six countries, reaching almost one million people impacted by either conflict, climate change, or the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is anticipated that the partnership will expand to involve the Green Climate Fund and other partners.

We forged new partnerships with financing institutions to expand our investment support, and new collaborations are being built with the European Investment Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and others.

Mindful that public money alone is not enough to end poverty, we are creating new and innovative partnerships to transform how development is financed, especially through blended finance  – the use of public or philanthropic money combined with private investment into businesses that generate social and environmental impacts alongside financial returns.

For example, we are working with the European Commission, through the AgrIntel initiative, providing advisory services to impact funds and blended finance operations investing in small and medium agribusinesses through equity and loans. Blended finance is certainly an area to watch.

In collaboration with the EU Delegation in Uganda, the Centre is strengthening the national Uganda Development Bank (UDB) to finance responsible private investments in food and agriculture.

Blending FAO’s knowledge and expertise with finance and working with national and international financial institutions will help our member countries achieve the impact at the scale required to achieve the SDGs.

The Centre is also teaming up with research centres to advance knowledge in digital agriculture, human capital, and foster opportunities for rural youth and women across the food value chain.

Another key area is green and climate financing, helping countries better tap into this type of financing. Both directly as FAO and with financing partners, we unlocked around $ 675 million of green financing with the Green Climate Fund between 2018-20.

What’s ahead for the Centre? What are some of the main priorities over the next years?

We will continue to work with international funds and banks on ways to strengthen the resilience of the food systems. This means helping public and private actors to transition to greener and better production systems that offer better nutrition without harming the environment, ultimately leading to a better life for all.

We will also continue to enable and promote the use of new data sources and climate-sensitive technologies (like geospatial data, digital applications and drones) to create better investment planning, risk management and lower interest rates for farmers.

We look forward to supporting national banks in more countries to enable them to finance more and better farmer and private investments in sustainable food and agriculture.

What are the key ingredients for creating sustainable growth?

I would sum it up as: a clear long-term strategy, improved policy environment and critical public investment to accelerate the adoption of innovation including digital and green technologies and practices, alongside basic infrastructure. Public investment is critical to catalyze private investment, particularly in finance. Meeting the SDGs – from ending poverty and hunger to building a more equitable, healthier and greener world – calls for more blended financing.

Increasing efficiencies in the food system must also go hand-in-hand with reducing inequalities, creating decent jobs and livelihoods for women and youth especially. In this respect, public investment in human capital of the men and women who produce, process and trade food (especially small-scale farmers) is essential as an enabler for all the rest: growth, sustainability, equality and inclusiveness.

There is a need for urgent action to transform agri-food systems. The resources - intellectual, financial and material - are there, but we must be better organized and coordinated so that the world’s efforts are not too late and ineffective for too many people.

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