- Panel of experts agrees that the conflict in Ukraine has exposed Africa’s fragility in terms of food security
- The impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to higher food and energy prices that have compounded an already fragile continent.
- Global crises have derailed climate change commitments which will add more fragility to the continent’s food production capabilities
- Africa has what it takes to build greater resilience in a sustainable manner
The post-Covid, supply chain challenges and the war in Ukraine have once again brought to the fore the vulnerabilities inherent in Africa’s over-dependence on external sources for basic supplies including food. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 85% of food consumed in Africa is imported from outside the continent, with an annual bill that is set to rise from about $35bn between 2016 and 2018 to $110bn by 2025. With the rise in resource nationalism and the challenges associated with climate change and rising geopolitical tensions, Africa will need to, as a matter of urgency, reconfigure its food systems to achieve self-sufficiency or risk placing vast numbers of its citizens at risk of starvation and malnutrition.
To address the current challenges and explore practical ways for Africa to become self-sufficient in food production New African convened a panel of experts for a virtual roundtable moderated by Omar Ben Yedder, group publisher and managing director of IC Publications, publishers of the magazine. Panellists included Dr Wanjira Mathai managing director for Africa and Global Partnerships at the World Resources Institute; Professor Edgar Githua of Strathmore University; Boaz Keizire, head of policy and advocacy at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa; and Dr Innocent Musabyimana, chief agricultural technologies officer and coordinator for the African Development Bank Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation programme.
Recent crises had led to volatility in prices with a disproportionate impact on a continent that already spends thrice as much, as a percentage of income, on food in comparison with its European neighbours. In particular, policy decisions in respect of climate change, taken in foreign capitals, will continue to have an effect on Africa’s food security. “Unfortunately, because it’s Africa and its Africans, it seems to matter less, which is why we need greater accountability as Africans and must control, as much as possible, of our own destiny,” Ben Yedder urged.
Responding to a question on how these negative trends had impacted the continent, Musabyimana said the primary issues were price and availability of fertiliser. In response, the African Fertilizer Programme had moved quickly, in collaboration with suppliers on the continent, to ensure timely supply. Another initiative, the African Emergency Food Production facility had been established by the bank to respond, primarily, to the Russia-Ukraine war and the effect it had on the supply and cost of agricultural inputs. The initiative is aimed at supporting farmers on the continent with 400 thousand metric tonnes of seeds and around three million tonnes of fertiliser. It also facilitates loans and grants to farmers in member countries, backed with $1.5bn funding from the bank.
Commenting on the inconsistencies in western nations’ energy and climate change policies, Mathai called for Africa to frame its own narrative and recognise the potential that it has in renewable energy. With the greatest potential for solar, Africa can help the rest of the world decarbonise and move away from fossils. Similarly, she noted, Africa can be part of the solution in feeding the world, even though it is now reliant on the rest of the world. “I find the food situation really sad. With the war and other shocks, we have all realised how dependent we are on Ukraine and other parts of the world,” Mathai said, calling for more trade between African nations.
Keizire, reflecting on Africa’s food security situation, recalled that sessions at the 2023 United General Assembly meetings had concluded that most nations in the world would not be able to meet the SDGs by 2030, with about 783 million people around the world going to bed hungry. In Africa, consumption continues to outstrip supply, meaning that even the major staples, namely rice, wheat, maize and soybean, have to be imported from outside the continent. With an increasing number of people at risk of starvation, the continent cannot continue to do business as usual, he urged, especially as climate change and geo-political and economic shocks continue to worsen the situation
On how geopolitics affects the continent’s ability to feed itself, Githua emphasised that conflict and crises are inevitable in the world. “There will always be crises somewhere in the world so African leaders need to start looking inward to see how we can become secure, self-sufficient and resilient. That way, we will not be at the mercy of someone else’s war,” he concluded.
To balance sustainability with increased production, the paradigm needs to shift in Africa, argued Mathai. “For instance, when it comes to food production, we’re currently wasting about 30 percent of the food due to inefficient handling and storage practices. So, there are significant opportunities for improvement.” She said at the World Resources Institute, there is a new focus on a new dimension to the food, land, and water program, which they have termed as “Produce, Protect, Reduce, Restore.” This emphasises the importance of producing food in more regenerative and restorative ways.
Keizire agreed with Mathai and added that the key is to harness the opportunities and leverage that innovation that is already available in Africa. “We’ve observed from countries like Vietnam that we can intensify land use and use less environmentally sensitive fertilisers to boost yields without harming the environment,” he pointed out. He noted that while usage of fertiliser at 250 kilograms per hectare, Africa is yet to reach the 50 kilograms per hectare set by the Abuja declaration.
The TAAT programme is an example of doing things differently, Musabyimana said. First initiated in 2019, the goal of the programme is to establish a framework that brings all stakeholders together to implement a delivery mechanism for proven agricultural technologies. “In essence, the idea is to feed our continent by making these technologies available to millions of farmers, irrespective of national borders and by focusing on agro-ecological zones. We possess all the necessary elements to achieve this: knowledge, skills, technologies, and a capable workforce,” he said. The programme has so far scored successes in Ethiopia, where by working closely with the government, the scientific community and farmers, a heat-resistant variant of wheat was deployed that dramatically improved output from from 5,000 in 2019 to 180,000 acres in 2021, and then to 650,000 acres in 2022.
Githua bemoaned the failure of leadership in preparing Africa to withstand and recover from various shocks. “The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call, and the Russia-Ukraine conflict has highlighted our vulnerability to fluctuations in commodity prices, especially food,” he stressed.
The conflict in Eastern Europe had compounded an already critical situation, and as a result of this on the back of the health pandemic, more people were going hungry than ever before. Tensions in the Middle East could make an already dire situation worse. Africa has the solutions to many of the world’s problems and can be self sufficient in a sustainable manner. However leadership needs to be bold, to address global geopolitical issues as well as internal ones on our own continent so that we get things right.