How Africa Can Ensure Its Food Security

July 13, 2023
Severe Food Insecurity

By Professor Maurice Okoli

At least, African leaders gradually recognise the need to work collectively to ensure food security. Food supply has seriously been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Africa’s persistent internal ethnic conflicts and a series of natural disasters. But more fascinating are the latest arguments over the interconnection between utilising resources for increasing and improving food production and taking adequate measures toward shedding import dependency.

The month of June 2023 was a busy month for African leaders. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa headed the Africa Peace Initiative to Kyiv and St. Petersburg, famous cities in Ukraine and Russia. Then later, he joined his colleagues at the New Global Financial Pact summit in Paris, France. While these trips could not be considered ordinary, the most controversial issues inseparably relate to Africa’s economic development, trade and investment, and sustainable welfare of the population.

As a development economist and researcher, scanning through several reports, Ramaphosa and his colleagues raised one significant question, among others, during their discussions in Paris. And that is the issue of ensuring food security. In practical terms, it has been part of government policy on improving food production and supply to the increasing population, especially in Africa, which stands at an estimated 1.4 billion. Of course, the world’s population is growing, but Africa’s exponential growth has acute challenges, including healthcare, employment and food security.

By halfway through this century, that is, 2050, Africa’s population is estimated to be 2.5 billion, and urban or megacities across Africa will continue experiencing enormous stress or pressure due to massive migration from under-developed parts of African countries. With Russia’s special operation in Ukraine and the sanctions in the history of mankind slammed on Russia by Western and European states, these have sufficiently been acknowledged as drivers of skyrocketing commodity prices and, ultimately, the cost of living. In effect, it’s described as a terrible global instability.

With all these trends even ceaselessly occurring now, Ramaphosa’s preferential steps toward food security, as described in his presentation, that the war has a ‘negative impact’ on the African continent and many other countries. It is, however, an acceptable fact that Africa, which generally depends on massive food imports, has suffered from all-year-round supply interruptions — diverse discussions ceaselessly awash the media landscape over these. For most African leaders, it is the question of food supply or how to sustain or preserve food import dependency. There is no alternative to reconnecting to regular supplies from Russia and Ukraine for these African countries.

During the New Global Financial Pact summit in Paris, African leaders expressed sceptical sentiments, as Ramaphosa and other leaders vehemently reiterated that external pledges and funding have unsuccessfully supported sustainable development goals, including food security in Africa.

Ramaphosa raised the structure of financial institutions, global currency, climate change and economic poverty, that there should be more cooperation and coordination, no fragmentation. There should be reforms in multinational institutions to address development issues, especially in the Global South. Africa should not be treated as beggars but as equals. It does not depend on donations and generosity. Africa should be allowed to be a key player on the global stage.

In stark reality, the global geopolitical processes are now offering the grounds to re-initiate and seek suitable alternatives that depend on century-old approaches and methods to solve national questions. Therefore, development critics may argue how the changes bring it closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how it will simultaneously bolster Africa’s role in the multipolar world.

Factors Influencing Food Production

Interestingly factors negatively influencing local production, including the agricultural sector, are commonly listed and extensively discussed. Researchers, academics and politicians already recognize them as retarding expected progress and making headways in attaining that status of food self-sufficiency. Some of these factors are drought and climatic extremes, low budget allocation and inappropriate agricultural policies in Africa, poor storage and preservation facilities, poor land tenure system and reduced soil fertilities, inadequate irrigation facilities and poor methods of pest and disease control.

Some aspects of traditional African culture related to food production have become less practised in recent years. But state attitudes are not stimulating either in this direction. Across Africa, the consumption culture is tied to foreign imported products as it is widely interpreted as status-symbol, considered as belonging to a well-defined upper class in the society. Thus this consumer culture becomes a driving factor towards continuity in importing food that fills modern shopping malls in Africa.

The most popular rhetoric, more or less chorus, is that although it has abundant natural resources, Africa remains the world’s poorest and least-developed continent, resulting from various causes that may include deep-seated political corruption. According to the United Nations Human Development Report in 2003, the bottom 24 ranked nations (151st to 175th) were all African states.

Thambo Mbeki, former South African President, has argued these aspects in his reports on illicit capital flows abroad. In a recently published analysis, Mbeki underlined that loans obtained for undertaking development infrastructure, including agricultural and related industrial sectors, are siphoned back to foreign banks for politicians.

Basic geography teaches us that Africa has enormous resources, encompassing the vast landmass, vegetation, and water resources, including the lakes and rivers. The Congo, Nile, Zambezi, Niger and Lake Victoria are among its rivers. Yet the continent is the second driest in the world, with millions of Africans suffering yearly from water shortages. It requires mechanising agricultural practices, offering specialised short training and adequate support for local farmers as aspects of measures and steps toward import substitution.

Addressing food security challenges in Africa

Economists argue that possibly adopting, to some degree, import substitution policies are not directed at escaping international trade. It is an attempt to utilise, at the maximum, the untapped available resources in the production sector and, secondly, redirect budgetary finances into needy significant economic sectors. Understandably, Africa depends on food imports to feed its population. It has become a common rules-based practice across Africa.

On the other hand, potential exporting foreign states generate revenues for their budget. This is also an undeniable fact as many countries around the world make conscious efforts to increase the export of commodities to foreign markets. According to Agriculture Ministry’s AgroExport Center, Russia targets $33 billion per year (annually) as revenue through massive export of grains and meat poultry to Africa.

By increasing grain exports to African countries, Russia aims to enhance the competitiveness of Russian agricultural goods in the African market. On the contrary, several international organisations have also expressed that African leaders must adopt import substitution mechanisms and use their financial resources to strengthen agricultural production systems.

At the G7 Summit in June 2022, President Joe Biden and G7 leaders announced over $4.5 billion to address global food security, over half of which will come from the United States. This $2.76 billion in U.S. government funding will help protect the world’s most vulnerable populations and mitigate the impacts of growing food insecurity and malnutrition by building production capacity and more resilient agriculture and food systems worldwide and responding to immediate emergency food needs.

U.S. Congress allocated $336.5 million to bilateral programs for Sub-Saharan African countries, including Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe and regional programs in southern Africa, west Africa, and the Sahel.

Using Zimbabwe as a Classical Example

Compared to food-importing African countries, Zimbabwe has increased wheat production, especially during the current Russia-Ukraine crisis. This achievement was attributed to efforts in mobilising local scientists to improve the crop’s production. Zimbabwe is an African country under Western sanctions for 25 years, hindering imports of much-needed machinery and other inputs to drive agriculture.

At the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) summit held from September 5 to 9, 2022, in Rwanda, President Emmerson Mnangagwa told the gathering that “we used to depend on importation of wheat from Ukraine in the past, but now we have been able to produce our own. To a considerable extent, the crisis in that country has not affected us. There is an urgent need to adopt a progressive approach and re-purpose food policies to address the emerging challenges affecting our entire food systems in Africa.”

As much as there are classical admirable lessons to learn from Zimbabwe, African leaders ignore these. Zimbabwe shares the same negative consequences of colonialism with many African countries. But in an additional case, it has struggled with sanctions imposed on the land, making conditions harder. Zimbabwe has been looking for foreign partners from other countries to transfer technology and industrialise its ailing economy in the southern African region.

While several African countries largely depend on Russia and Ukraine for their regular supply of wheat and grains, even despite the persistent geopolitical warring situation, Zimbabwe has recorded its highest wheat harvest during the last agricultural production in 2022. It emerges as one of the few African countries with an import substitution agricultural policy and strategically working self-sufficiency. Worth suggesting that African leaders have to learn from Zimbabwe – a landlocked southern African country.

Looking for Inside Solutions

At least over the past few years, even long before the Russia-Ukraine crisis, there have been glowing signs from two African banks calling for increased food production. African Development Bank (AfDB) and the African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) have gained increasing prominence for their work with the private sectors within Africa. These two banks support the agricultural sectors, but more is needed to meet the highest target.

At the Paris summit, AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina, African and European heads of government and representatives of development partners on the sidelines held discussions about the Alliance for Green Infrastructure in Africa. The key aim is accelerating the financing of transformational climate-resilient and greener infrastructure projects in Africa and attracting new partners and financiers. Adesina, formerly Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, now the 8th President of the African Development Bank, has consistently been pushing for increased domestic agriculture to attain food self-sufficiency and ensure food security on the continent.

Of particular concern is that over 900 million people are still impoverished on the continent. Over 283 million Africans suffer from hunger, including over 216 million children who suffer from malnutrition. The situation is more serious due to climate change, including severe droughts, floods and cyclones that have devastated parts of Africa. Today, much of the Horn Africa and the Sahel last had rain several seasons ago. The resources Africa needs need to be there, explains AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina.

“I am excited about what the bank is doing to support farmers to adapt to climate change through our flagship program —Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT). It is a platform implemented through partnerships with national and regional agricultural research institutions and the private sector. It is the largest ever effort to get technologies at scale to millions of farmers across Africa,” he wrote in his report.

Over the past three years, TAAT delivered climate-resilient agricultural technologies to 25 million farmers or 62% of the 40 million farmer target. The depth of consistent work of this bank is to enhance food processing, value addition and competitiveness of agricultural supply chains across Africa. The bank is committing resources for the establishment of Special Agro-Industrial Processing Zones. With its partners (including the Islamic Development Bank and International Fund for Agricultural Development), the bank has invested more than $1.5 billion to establish these zones in eleven countries.

Africa’s ability to feed nine billion people by 2050 is not a foregone conclusion; it is a call to action. We must harness our strengths, confront challenges, and work relentlessly towards our shared vision. Therefore, let us rise to this grand challenge. Let us forge ahead, knowing that our efforts today will determine the future of food in the world. It is necessary to unlock Africa’s potential in agriculture. Africa must feed itself.

The Wake-Up Bell for Action

It may take us by surprise when we know that 81% of the sub-Saharan African population lives on less than $2.50 (PPP) per day in 2023, compared with 86% for India. China and India are populous but are moving faster than Africa. China has a more substantial global economic influence than India, but Africa still needs to progress in various economic sectors.

The latest economic trend is that Africa is now at risk of being in debt once again, particularly in sub-Saharan African countries. It receives the most external funds for its development from Development funding sponsors such as the United States, Europe, China, France and Britain or multilateral blocs such as G7 states, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Other institutions and organisations, such as Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and International Development Finance Corporation (DFC), also engage with Africa. In addition, the Asian and Arab Banks are showing practical actions. The cry for the National Development Bank of the BRICS has yet to think of Africa.

In this article, it is necessary in our discussions to appreciate the geographical facts that Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent, after Asia, in both aspects. Despite a wide range of natural resources, Africa is the least wealthy continent per capita and second-least wealthy by total wealth, behind Oceania. Scholars have attributed this to different factors, including geography, climate, tribalism, colonialism, neocolonialism, lack of democracy, and worse Africa-wide corruption. Despite this low concentration of wealth, recent economic expansion and the large and young population make Africa a crucial financial market in the broader global context.

In a nutshell, adopting measures for establishing food security is crucial to sustainable development. Addressing food security, therefore, is one of the keys for Africa in this 21st century. From the above perspectives, African leaders have to focus and redirect both human and financial resources toward increasing local production as the surest approach in ensuring sustainable food security for the estimated 1.4 billion population in Africa, and this most possibly falls within the framework of the Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

By Professor Maurice Okoli is a fellow at the Institute for African Studies and the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also a fellow at the North-Eastern Federal University of Russia

Dipo Olowookere

Dipo Olowookere is a journalist based in Nigeria that has passion for reporting business news stories. At his leisure time, he watches football and supports 3SC of Ibadan.

Mr Olowookere can be reached via [email protected]

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