A quarter of a century ago, Africa was seen as a land of famine. And while much has improved, hunger crises continue to haunt the continent, emerging most recently in the Sahel region and East Africa. As global food prices have spiked repeatedly over the past five years, the resulting rise in hunger, poverty and political instability have reminded us how many African families live close to the edge of food insecurity.

With agriculture providing 70% of employment and 30% of GDP in Africa, on average, Africa’s well-being is closely tied to its agriculture sector – for better or worse.

Now, however, a new sense of optimism is emerging. The rapid growth of African economies and growing global demand for food is bringing new focus and momentum into African agriculture. Helping Africa to grow more food won’t solve the immediate crises but it can reduce the likelihood of future ones.

African agriculture holds tremendous untapped potential – the continent could dramatically increase its production of food for both domestic consumption and export. But developing that potential will require investment and commitment from both the public and private sectors.

The public sector has launched a number of initiatives, at global and regional level, to mobilize greater planning and investment in African agriculture. However, increasing private-sector investment across the board, in a sustainable and responsible manner, remains a challenge.

This week in Addis Ababa, African and global leaders will take a step toward ensuring that Africans are in the driver’s seat when it comes to bringing sustainable investment to agriculture. At the Grow Africa Investment Forum, jointly hosted by the African Union, NEPAD and the World Economic Forum, nearly 250 investors, government leaders and other stakeholders (including civil society and farmer leaders) will convene to discuss specific investment priorities in seven African countries. Delegations from Tanzania, Mozambique, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and Burkina Faso will present their top investment priorities.

What’s different about Grow Africa is that countries are determining their priorities for private-sector investment. The partnership provides technical support to frame these priorities in business terms and then provides a platform to engage potential investors. The partnership serves as an open, multistakeholder platform, encouraging dialogue, collaboration and mutual accountability between all stakeholders in the agriculture system.

Grow Africa represents the joining of two agendas – NEPAD’s Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), which supports African countries to develop public-sector agriculture plans; and the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, which links the private sector with other stakeholders to achieve food security, environmental sustainability and economic growth through agriculture.

The seven countries participating in Grow Africa will arrive in Addis this week ready to present a wide range of investment priorities, from specific commodities to growth corridors. All of them place a strong priority on providing opportunities to smallholder farmers and small-scale entrepreneurs, who make up the majority of Africa’s agricultural producers and traders.

What does the private sector think about this? Many in the sector are intrigued and excited, preparing specific investment offers and talking to local partners. We are optimistic that real commitments to sustainable investment will come out of these discussions.

We look forward to updating you on the results of this and other efforts to contribute to a healthy, prosperous and sustainable future for African communities.

Lisa Dreier is Director of Food Security and Development Initiatives at the World Economic Forum USA. For more information, visit our websites at http://www.weforum.org/agriculture or http://www.growafrica.com.

A woman works in a plantation of rubber seedlings in San Pedro March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon