A Regional Approach to Managing Africa’s Food Shocks

The tragic famine in Somalia brings to mind harrowing images from the country’s past famines and others in the Horn of Africa, and yet again, the international community has responded generously by providing both food and medical aid. Watching the heartbreaking images of emaciated children and loss of life, one cannot but wonder if this tragedy could have been avoided. An even more pertinent question is whether this crisis will recur in the near future, with similar consequences. Although, droughts are a frequent occurrence in the region, it is critically important to rethink strategies for responding to famines that go beyond increasing the productivity of African agriculture and food aid. On August 25th the African Union (AU) will host a meeting to examine the crisis in Somalia and discuss medium-to-long term crisis-mitigation strategies. We suggest that any viable strategy must take a regional approach consistent with the broad economic development strategy endorsed by the AU.

The improvement of agricultural productivity has been a key focus of the response to long-term food security in Africa. The continent has experienced a declining trend in food production relative to population growth therefore it is important that Africa continue to prioritize food production. However, food supply is just one of the problems Africa faces, and often not the main problem. In many countries, inadequate “food governance” structures are apparent, as evidenced by the existence of surpluses in one region and severe shortages in another. For example, in January 2011 the northeastern part of Kenya experienced livestock and human fatalities due to forage and food shortages while the Kenya’s Rift Valley region experienced massive food surpluses with farmers demanding the government purchase their excess crops lest they rot. These disparities also exist within a single region. Amidst the severe famine in the hard hit Turkana Region of Kenya, farmers are sitting on bumper harvests wondering how they will store their surpluses. These imbalances are apparent across the continent — East Africa is currently facing the worst famine and drought in decades while Southern Africa is reporting good rainfall and grain surpluses.

On the whole, the food deficit on the African continent may not be as pronounced as it is often reported. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that in 2007 the per capita dietary energy supply in Africa was about 2455 kilocalories per day, which is only slightly less than the daily recommended average. In addition, FAO and the World Bank have estimated that Africa loses about $4 billion worth of grain per year due to a lack of adequate post-harvest technologies, which would meet the minimum annual food requirements for about 48 million people. The African Postharvest Losses Information System reports that about 10 to 20 percent of Africa’s grain production is lost post harvest. This occurs across agricultural sectors in Africa milk losses in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are high due to spoilage and wastage. The cost of wasted product in each of these countries has been estimated to reach US$ 22.4, US$23, and $US 11 million per year, respectively.

So while there are food shortages in Africa, the problem of food insecurity is greatly exacerbated by inadequate management of existing food resources. Thus, the problem of long term food security can be reduced significantly through improved “food governance.” This includes improved distribution channels, infrastructure (to reach markets), food preservation techniques (to prevent food losses), and strategic grain reserves (both virtual and physical). Weather indexed insurance, fertilizer subsidies and social safety net transfers such as cash or food transfers during crises have also been effective in reducing food insecurity.

Mali and Ethiopia are examples of successful “food governance” systems in Africa, both of which face highly variable rainfall patterns and rely on rain-fed grain production. Mali, the more arid of the two, has held strategic reserves through the Programme de Restructuration du Marché Céréalier [Program for Restructuring the Cereal Market] or PRMC since 1981. The PRMC successfully mitigated the 2004-2005 drought and subsequent locust invasion that devastated neighboring Niger. PRMC phased out its role as an intervener in the grain market and bolstered its role as a provider of market information and social safety nets via emergency grain stock. After the 2004-2005 period of drought, PRMC adjusted their reserves from 35,000 metric tons to hold 69,000 metric tons of cereals, rice, and coarse grains. This adjustment was made in order to keep supplies low enough to avoid distorting grain market prices, but large enough to cover food shortages experienced during the 2004-2005 drought.

Similarly in Ethiopia the Emergency Food Security Reserve Administration (EFRSA), an independent government agency, handles emergency food reserves and has mitigated several scenarios since the severe crisis of the 1970s. Recent efforts to extend social safety net features, via the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), have met considerable success using combinations of cash and work transfers. Separating the strategic reserves from the grain marketing board has been credited as a primary reason for the success of PRMC and EFRSA.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of a national strategy becomes strained when there is a shock to the entire region. In the case of Ethiopia, Somali refugees have flooded into the country, thus strategic reserves and social transfers have proven inadequate to address the increased demand. We call for African food security policies that contain built-in mechanisms that counteract the incidence of failure on the national level due to an influx of refugees, extraordinary natural disaster, conflict, etc.. We propose that if and when a particular country is unable to manage a crisis, there should to be an established blueprint for administering intra and inter-regional assistance bolstered by the support of the international aid community.

A Regional Approach to Food Supply Management

There has been significant discussion among Africa’s regional economic communities (RECs) to develop regional strategies to address food security, but these discussions have not been translated into action. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) has proposed developing grain reserves based on regional blocs. The South African Development Community (SADC) has commissioned plans for a regional food reserve facility, but it has yet to reach consensus on implementation. In the Sahel, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Union Economique et Monétaire Ouest Afrique (UEMOA) have organized a coalition to advocate for food security in the region. ECOWAS and UEMOA have yet to implement regional reserves, but they have coordinated in raising $500,000 to address the 2010 drought in Niger. The East African Community (EAC) has developed a Food Security Action Plan 2010-2015 to improve preparedness and responses to food crises in the region. Despite the numerous plans and efforts across the region, regional food security mechanisms have not been implemented in Africa.

Regional efforts to implement medium and long-term strategies should be immediately accelerated and supported by international donors while this issue has international attention and urgency. The efforts of individual nations must be reinforced by a regional “food governance” strategy.

The first part of developing a regional food governance strategy in Africa is the development of regional food reserves as back-ups to national reserves. Regional reserves would serve as an effective reinforcement mechanism for national reserves, as regions tend to have more stable grain yields than individual nations. Regional efforts have the potential to reduce the costs associated with holding large stocks by individual countries and to assist during an extreme crisis when a country has depleted its own reserves. These stores could be a mix of physical and cash reserves. Asia provides an example of a regional food reserve programs that Africa can learn from. Through the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve initiative, the region released 520 tons (equal to 10,400 bags) of rice to victims of the typhoon Ondoy.

As the main pan-African organization, the AU should facilitate transfers from food surplus RECs to food deficit ones. Similarities in dietary preferences across African sub-regions make this alternative much more attractive than food aid from the west. Furthermore, through this mechanism the AU could help to synchronize and coordinate the regional and international donor strategies.

The second part of the regional “food governance” strategy would be for RECs to help collect regional market information and make that information publicly available. This would allow private markets to attempt to redistribute food from surplus/low price areas to deficit/high price ones. It would also help to address information failures in African food markets and verify the conditions in which regional stocks are released. In order for this information to be used effectively, African countries must eliminate their food export bans. Food export bans during famines exacerbate the situation and make it difficult for producers with a surplus to reach demand. Tanzania’s decision to ban food exports has worsened the crisis in Kenya and other neighboring countries.

Another component of regional “food governance” would be regional risk management. Regional insurance markets may prove to be more effective than national ones to hedge against systematic risk. By developing regional weather indexed insurance markets, customers in Southern Africa could help insurance firms hedge against the large number of claims being submitted in East Africa.

The international community should work together with national governments, RECs and the AU to develop effective “food governance” mechanisms in Africa. Unfortunately, due to the urgency required to mobilize and distribute emergency aid, it is often vulnerable to corruption and captured by unintended parties. This was observed in Somalia during the 1991-1992 famine and there are reports that food aid has gone missing in Somalia during the current famine. Some explicit examples of effective “food governance” strategies include: supporting infrastructure projects to facilitate the transfer of food intra/inter regionally, providing financial support and capacity building for post harvest technologies, bolstering regional food reserves, collecting and disseminating market information and enhancing social safety nets.

Africa’s food deficit is not as acute as it appears from the human suffering that we see in the Horn of Africa. Better “food governance” can achieve significant progress in preventing the type of food crisis that is being observed in Somalia today. We recommend an integrated national-regional food governance strategy to reduce food production losses and facilitate the transfer of food from food surplus areas to food deficit ones across countries and RECs. As the AU gathers in response to the crisis in East Africa, the implementation of regional food governance mechanisms must be at the forefront of the agenda. The tragedy in Somalia should serve as the much needed push to move from the discussion of existing plans to fully operational regional food security programs. While increasing agricultural productivity is important, Africa can achieve a major victory by better managing its existing agricultural food supply.