Strengthening Africa’s food systems
Food security in Africa: Current efforts and challenges
Africa’s food systems are at a crossroad. Several challenges and exogenous shocks— including extreme weather events and climate change, recurrent outbreaks of pests and diseases, limited availability and adoption of yield-increasing technologies—have exposed fragilities of Africa’s food systems, undermining the ability to meet the food demand of a burgeoning population.
More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine have disrupted the supply chain for agricultural inputs, fuel, and food. The state of food security in the continent is worsening, with over 20 percent of the continent’s population (roughly 257 million people) undernourished.1 Africa bears the heaviest burden of malnutrition,2 while the African Union’s Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) Biennial Review report (2019-2021) further reveals that Africa is not on track to meet its goal of ending hunger by 2025.3 In 2022, over 20 million people and at least 10 million children faced severe food shortage in Africa due to crop failure and four consecutive dry seasons.4 East Africa alone lost close to 2 million livestock in a year due to recurrent drought and low response capacity.5 Moreover, projections by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa point to Africa’s annual food imports increasing significantly; by a factor of seven from $15 billion in 2018 to $110 billion by 2025, and by a factor of three from the current $43 billion.6
Current efforts by AGRA and other African-led institutions
Given these worrying food security trends, Africa’s food systems must become more resilient and guarantee access to healthy and affordable diets for all. Tested systemic models have demonstrated that agriculture transformation is possible in input and output market systems, and that it can be scaled across the continent. Besides engaging in immediate recovery efforts, such as our $11 million investments to tackle the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) has supported African countries to build capacities for the design of agricultural sector strategies and evidence-based policy reforms. At a country level, AGRA has made significant strides in helping resource national agriculture programs, working closely with ministries of agriculture to design 11 flagship programs. Some of the early dividends of this work include:
- Enhanced capacity of African governments to design and implement policies, and hence respond to emergent agricultural and food systems challenges. AGRA recognizes that “business as usual” is no longer sustainable and has therefore developed a program called “sustainable farming” to ensure that farmers concomitantly achieve three major livelihood objectives, namely: Food security, protecting ecosystem services, and resilience to climate and other shocks. It employs context-specific farming system solutions with emphasis on improving water and nutrient efficiency of crops, replenishing over extracted nutrients through application of judicious amounts of fertilizer, and diversifying the farming systems with climate resilient crops and management practices.
- To improve climate resilience, AGRA invested in the development of African scientists and African research institutions. AGRA has thus far trained more than 500 national research system breeders at PhD and MSc level, to create local capacity of genetic development.
- Responding to the climate risks, Africa has capacity to breed and release varieties of crop that are climate adaptive; early maturing, and drought tolerant like cassava, maize, rice, groundnuts, cowpeas, high iron beans, and b-carotene rich sweet potato that can be scaled.
- Recognizing the malfunctional extension system in Africa, the introduction of private-sector led village-based agricultural advisors’ engagement has helped to reduce post-harvest losses by about 30 percent in countries such as Mali, Mozambique, and Nigeria.
- Together with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), AGRA is building the Regional Food Balance Sheet (RFBS) to address the dearth of reliable, timely, and accurate data and guide food and nutrition related decision making in Africa.
- Together with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission and other partners, AGRA has established the ECOWAS Rice Observatory (ERO) with respective national chapters, where rice-related matters of trade policy, market development, and farmer support will be discussed, and solutions identified.
- Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, AGRA has established Chinyanja Triangle Soybean Trade initiative and linked a total of 22,179 smallholder farmers to regional trade markets, supplying over 7,070 million metric tons (MT) of soybeans valued at more than $4 million unlocking trade financing valued at $2.5 million which will support aggregators to source soybeans from smallholder farmers at competitive prices.
Critical next steps
Beyond this progress, strategic and urgent measures are still needed to enhance the resilience of Africa’s food systems and bolster the ability to deliver on food security and nutrition objectives. Some of these actions include:
- Accelerating the adoption and implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in order to avert food supply disruptions, as experienced during the pandemic.
- Providing an enabling policy environment for the financial sector to supply more business and financial tools to Agri-SMEs.
- Supporting the establishment of Strategic Grain Reserves (SGRs) as a buffer against unexpected exogenous shocks. Social Protection Programs are also priorities and should be implemented with clear graduation targets for the beneficiaries.
- Moving towards sustainable farming: Although Africa owns about 60 percent of the world’s potential land for agricultural expansion,7 by 2050, about 45 percent of the additional food should come from sustainable intensification (i.e., producing more food and fiber per unit of land and water).
- African food systems should be diversified, moving from the major global commodities: Rice, wheat, and maize; and more investment must be made towards African indigenous and resilient crops including sorghum, millets, teff, and cassava.
- Increasing investments in market infrastructure and other incentive mechanisms to support African farmers to adopt climate smart policies, technologies, and practices, including afforestation and rehabilitation of degraded lands, wetlands, and protected areas to enhance carbon sequestration and reduce carbon losses.
- Investment in irrigation infrastructure is critical. Rainfed food production sits at the center of 70 percent of Africa’s livelihoods. This heavy reliance on rainfed systems exposes farmers to recurrent drought and other extreme events, hence water-centered adaptation must be a priority for Africa.
- Increased availability of clean and renewable energy for rural Africa, the absence of which is currently contributing hugely to deforestation and climate change exposure.
- Institutional capacity: Africa’s level of exposure and vulnerability is connected to its low institutional capacity and governance systems. We need to ensure that national systems have the capacity to convert climate policies and commitments into action.
- Early warning systems and associated climate advisories that are demand-driven and context specific, combined with climate change literacy and awareness, can help make the difference between coping and informed adaptation responses.
Securing Africa’s food sovereignty
The war in Ukraine laid bare a vexing and persistent structural vulnerability in most African countries.8 The continent, with 60 percent of the world’s unused arable land, cannot feed itself because of low yields, poor farm management practices, and distortions in agricultural markets.9 Consequently, the continent is overly dependent on food and fertilizer imports to feed its people. Africa’s farmers find it increasingly difficult to enhance productivity, create jobs, and boost wealth in the agricultural sector.10 The Ukraine crisis should be a wake-up call. African countries must embrace a food systems approach to scale-up food production, overhaul farm management practices, and improve food marketing to move beyond food security and attain food sovereignty.11 This will not only ensure the availability of affordable food, but it will also help countries attain a number of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including: SDG #2 zero hunger, SDG #3 good health and wellbeing, SDG #5 gender equality, SDG #8 decent work and economic growth, and SDG #10 reduced inequalities.
The 27th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) highlighted the challenges Africa continues to face with regards to tackling the effects of climate change. While we are buoyed by the groundbreaking decision to establish a loss and damage fund, the failure to reach global consensus on tangible action that will reduce emissions reminds us of the difficult road ahead.12 Without this thorny issue being resolved, our efforts to attain food sovereignty will remain stymied.
Food sovereignty speaks to the ability of a country to feed itself. In Africa, this must involve increasing production and ensuring that farming systems are more resilient to price and environmental shocks. The 2006 Abuja Declaration of African agriculture ministers called for an increase in Africa’s average fertilizer application rates from 20 kg/ha to 50 kg/ha to boost production. Africa’s average application rates are still at 2006 levels, while the global average is slightly over 130 kg/ha.[UNDP. 2022. “Towards Food Security and Sovereignty in Africa.” Regional Bureau for Africa Working Paper. United Nations Development Programme.] While it is evident that fertilizers are not the proverbial silver bullet, it is clear that better farming practices could be a crucial first step in Africa’s journey towards food sovereignty. Recent UNDP research suggests that meeting the 2006 Abuja target could more than double Africa’s food production in a couple of years.
In order to accomplish this, Africa does not need to be overly dependent on fertilizer imports from Ukraine and Russia. The continent produces sufficient potash and ammonia to sustain a thriving fertilizer industry. In addition, existing fertilizer blending facilities (in 19 African countries) and manufacturing plants (in 10 African countries) operate well below capacity. Concerted investments in infrastructure, technology, and skills, including through public-private partnerships, could boost fertilizer production. Leveraging the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could also widen and deepen Africa’s market and facilitate the availability of affordable fertilizer across Africa. In Nigeria, for example, if fertilizer-producing plants were working at full capacity (Dangote’s full capacity is 3 million tons and Indorama’s 1.4 million tons), the country could meet its own 1.5 million tons of fertilizer consumption, while also meeting the rest of the region’s needs.
A case for food sovereignty
Food sovereignty in Africa is not just about production and trade. It is also about resilience and ensuring that the continent’s food production is not held hostage by natural and market shocks. The use of technology, fertilizer, and improved farm management practices could revolutionize Africa’s food sector. In addition, African countries must take steps to reverse their dependence on food aid and food imports. Free or cheap food imports have made local food production in Africa less competitive and, in turn, shifted consumer preferences away from local brands to foreign ones. As a result, Africa is now the most food-import-dependent region in the world, dedicating more than 13 percent of its import expenditure to buying food and agricultural commodities. This contributes to overall fiscal stress.
Revolutionizing food production in Africa will improve the continent’s development prospects and build resilience. Using fertilizers produced in Africa and fully integrating research from Africa’s agricultural research institutes could help the continent attain food sovereignty by minimizing imports. This would make Africa’s food markets more resilient during global shocks and prevent the pass-through of global price shocks into domestic inflation. It would also have the added benefit of relieving stress on scarce foreign exchange earnings.
Assuming Africa had adhered to the 2006 Abuja Declaration and gradually increased fertilizer application rates from 20 kg to 50 kg per hectare between 2010 and 2020, food production could have grown cumulatively by 209 percent instead of just 24 percent. Such an increase would have had a salutary impact on reducing hunger and addressing malnourishment.
The increased agricultural productivity would also significantly impact women and girls, helping Africa make more progress on SDG 5 regarding gender equality. Research by the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that women comprise 43 percent of the agricultural labor-force in developing countries and are mainly concentrated in harvesting and weeding.7 Boosting food production could therefore also contribute to decent work and economic growth (SDG 8), especially for women and girls.
Some African countries are already improving food production and attaining food sovereignty. Malawi’s 2006-2010 agricultural development program, which has been described as “pro-poor,” increased yields, raised incomes, and made the crops more resilient to drought.13 Ethiopia’s 2005 productive safety net policy program (PSNP) targeted households and communities that are chronically food insecure and offered insurance, as well as investment in public goods such as soil and water conservation.
Despite progress in a few countries, Africa needs coordinated policy changes and sustained action to increase food production, improve distribution, ensure affordability, and reduce dependency.14 African leaders should prioritize incentives to increase domestic and regional food supply. This will include using appropriate inputs to boost and scale up production to cater to national and regional markets. An important goal in this context is the full operationalization of the AfCFTA to facilitate the free movement of labor, inputs, and food across the one-Africa market. From a policy perspective, Africa must shift the narrative from food supply to developing resilient food systems.15 Africa’s default must no longer be only trying to address food availability. Policies must focus on ensuring that the entire continental food value chain is robust, profitable, and leaves no one (and no community) behind.
Africa’s development partners also have a critical role to play.15 While temporary aid is needed, the primary need is to fully support programs that de-risk and boost critical investments in Africa’s food sector. This will facilitate financial and technical resources to modernize food production, storage, and marketing in Africa. Africa’s development partners can also promote efforts to maximize regional food trade, by reducing disincentives and inefficiencies in global markets—such as dumping, subsidies, and tariff structures that would disadvantage or discourage domestic production in African countries.
Africa has a long history of food dependency, a legacy of food-aid policies and low domestic productive capacity.15 As a result, much of its food is imported, implying that any major global shock can lead to severe trade disruptions, increased hunger, and pass-through inflation, eroding both household and public budgets. Africa’s food sovereignty pathway involves enhancing agricultural productivity by improving farm management techniques.
UNDP analysis shows that Africa could easily produce the fertilizer inputs it needs, and that meeting the 2006 Abuja Declaration targets would boost food supply, while positively impacting the SDGs.15
Ensuring Africa’s food sovereignty—implying increased availability and affordability—is key to the continent’s own economic sovereignty, sustainable development, and achieving the SDGs.15
- 1. Armstrong, Martin. 2022. “A fifth of people in Africa are suffering from chronic hunger. This map shows where the situation is most severe.” World Economic Forum. August 2022.
- 2. FAO. 2022. “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022.” The Food and Agriculture Organization.
- 3. AU. 2021. “3rd CAADP Biennial Review Report.” The African Union.
- 4. UNICEF. 2022. “At least 10 million children face severe drought in the Horn of Africa.” United Nations Children’s Fund.
- 5. Bloomberg. 2022. “’On Brink of Catastrophe’: Horn of Africa Drought Kills Over 1.5 million Livestock.” Bloomberg. February 2022.
- 6. UNECA. 2021. “Regional Dialogue: African Food Systems: Seventh Session of the Africa Regional Forum on Sustainable Development.” Background paper. United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. March 2021.
- 7. Wim Plaizier. 2016. “2 truths about Africa’s agriculture”. World Economic Forum.
- 8. UNDP. 2022. “The impact of the war in Ukraine on sustainable development in Africa.” United Nations Development Programme.
- 9. UNECA. 2013. “Eighth African Development Forum (ADF-VIII) Governing and Harnessing Natural Resources for Africa’s Development.” United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.
- 10. UNDP. 2022. “The impact of the war in Ukraine on sustainable development in Africa.” United Na¬tions Development Programme.
- 11. UNDP. 2022. “Towards Food Security and Sovereignty in Africa.” Regional Bureau for Africa Working Paper. United Nations Development Programme
- 12. World Economic Forum. 2022. “What did COP27 accomplish and what actions can we expect as a result?” World Economic Forum.
- 13. Arndt, Channing, Karl Pauw, and James Thurlow. 2015. “The Economy-wide Impacts and Risks of Malawi’s Farm Input Subsidy Program.” American Journal of Agricultural Economics, Volume 98, Issue 3 p. 962-980.
- 14. UNDP. 2022. “Towards Food Security and Sovereignty in Africa.” Regional Bureau for Africa Working Paper. United Nations Development Programme.
- 15. Ibid.
- 16. Ibid.
- 17. Ibid.
- 18. Ibid.
- 19. Ibid.
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