By Paul Frimpong
Prices for basic staple food are back in the headlines—they are rising again. This is bad news for those among Africa’s poor who consume more food than what they can produce. Think especially of poor families living in cities: they spend the majority of their income on simple foodstuffs. Rising food prices are also having important macroeconomic impacts on many African countries since more and more food is being imported from the global market leading to worsening balances of trade. Just 5% of Africa’s imports of cereals come from other African countries. This issue is not going to go away. Demand for food will continue to increase, it is projected to double by 2020, and consumers will be increasingly located in Africa’s rapidly growing cities.
The World Food Summit of 1996 defined food security as existing “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Food security encompasses a wide array of activities such as food availability, food access, and food use.
The number of people without enough food to eat on a regular basis remains stubbornly high, at over 800 million, and is not falling significantly. Over 60% of the world’s undernourished people live in Asia, and a quarter in Africa. The proportion of people who are hungry, however, is greater in Africa (33%) than Asia (16%). The latest FAO figures indicate that there are 22 countries, 16 of which are in Africa, in which the undernourishment prevalence rate is over 35%. Africa’s food security and nutrition situation is growing worse. Africa has been experiencing several episodes of acute food insecurity causing an immense loss of life and livelihoods over the past decades.
The food security outlook in Africa is worrisome, as Africa’s population is expected to increase from 1.01 billion in 2009 to 2 billion in 2050 if current demographic conditions remain constant. Much of this growth will be concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where annual population growth rates are expected to range from between 1.6% to slightly more than 2.4% between 2010 and 2050. How will Africa be able to cope with its food security challenges? How can we feed ourselves and the rest of the world? Lets’ not forget that Africa is the most endowed arable and rich land in the world.
Fortunately, Africa does have the means and opportunities to deal with and deliver improved food security for its citizens. If African farmers were to achieve the yields that farmers are attaining in other developing countries then output of staples would easily double or even triple. On top of this barely a fraction of fertile agricultural land is being cultivated—just 10% of the 400 million hectares of agricultural land in the Guinea Savannah zone that covers a large part of Africa. Cultivating this land, while ensuring that existing user rights and the environment are protected, can play a key role in satisfying the rising demand for food in Africa’s cities and ultimately elsewhere in the world.
The Ghost Hands
The causes of food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa are diverse, multi-factorial and interlinked.
In a report released by the World Bank (October 2012) on Food Security in Africa, it was identified that Regulatory barriers to trade and competition along the whole value chain must be removed for Africa to reach its potential in regional food trade.
Trade barriers deny African farmers access to higher yielding seeds and better fertilizers available elsewhere in the world. For example, in some African countries it can take two to three years for new seed varieties to be released, even if they are used elsewhere on the continent. As new varieties are introduced at a faster rate, Africa falls farther and farther behind in the use of modern seeds making it difficult to compete with imports from the global market.
High transport costs and the lack of investment in modern trucking and shipping capacity remain a key factor limiting the movement of surplus staples to areas of strong demand. Although transport infrastructure needs improvement—especially on cross-border routes and in linking smallholders to regional networks—roads are not the major constraint. The critical issue is regulatory reform that delivers more modern and competitive transport services.
Over the past 30 years, Africa has become subject to erratic weather patterns and is often plagued by prolonged droughts followed by floods. These natural shocks trigger adverse consequences, including widespread food insecurity. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is the second-most severely affected region for climatological disasters among the developing regions of the world. This is because the temperatures are generally already high, and most of the region’s inhabitants depend on rain fed agriculture for their livelihoods. Only 4% of cropland in SSA is irrigated, compared with a global level of almost 20%. Furthermore, the rural farming populations are the most affected because of their extremely low adaptive capacity, which is linked to acute poverty levels.
It is believed that prolonged drought experienced in certain regions of the continent frustrated the expected reduction in poverty and food insecurity, despite the economic growth experienced across the continent over the last decade. Drought related acute food shortage in the Sahel region of West Africa and the Horn of Africa have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people, while about 18.7 million and 11.7 million people respectively are in need of emergency assistance.
The global rise in food prices further compounds these crises. Food crop production is not increasing at a rate necessary to meet population growth, currently averaging 2.4% annually across Africa. Therefore, it is expected that food scarcity will drive up food prices in certain regions of the continent.
The Danger Within
The absolute number of stunted pre-school children has actually increased by more than 14.5 million, to 60 million, between 1990 and 2010 – projected to reach 64.2 million in 2020. Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo account for 40% of all the stunted preschoolers in Africa; hence, any effort to reduce the level of chronic malnutrition on the continent. The July 2012 executive brief of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) on the acute food crises in the Sahel region of West Africa, estimated that about 1 million children under the age of five are at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
What Is Required?
Early attempts by African governments to tackle the food security situation on the continent, such as the Lagos Plan of Action (1980-1985) and Regional Food Plan for Africa (1978-1990), also failed due to organizational and financial difficulties. However, with the dawn of the new millennium, many African Governments must commit to increasing public spending on agriculture through investment.
Governments in Africa need to engage in a more open and inclusive dialogue with their stakeholders on policies affecting food trade and food security and in particular to engage with neighbors through the regional communities on pursuing a collective approach to food security. Too often decisions are made without critical analysis and consideration of options and the interests and views of the broad group of stakeholders in food staples trade policies are seldom represented. The international community has to be ready to support this dialogue with better and more up to date information on trends in food production and regional food stocks and analysis of the impact that proposed policy reforms will have on regional food trade.
Again, there is a need to review and remove barriers to trade along the food value chain. Difficult decisions will have to be made and implemented—while many farmers and consumers will benefit a small number of influential politicians and their friends with interests in the food and related sectors will strongly resist. Again the international community can assist with studies that show the magnitude of the benefits from reform and in designing packages to offset losses that some may incur.
Governments must provide room for rural off- farm opportunities. This will provide opportunities for both the landless rural poor and the group of non-adopters that fall out of business when the agricultural sector becomes more efficient. Some of the opportunities that African countries can look into include cottage industries that process food crops by value addition and/or enhancing shelf life through preservation techniques; production of small scale processing machinery; provision of credit; contract processing facilities; and market facilitation. Specific activities may include the production of items with enhanced shelf life that would allow for marketing in distant markets. These products may range from dairy products such as butter, cheese to pre-processed and packaged cut vegetables such as carrots and shelled garden peas for the urban population; to dried fruits and vegetables. More sophisticated, yet relatively technically easy to produce products, such as starch and vegetable oils, may also be produced. For this to be achievable there is need for collaboration amongst the multi- stakeholders.
Africa’s capacity to grow to feed itself and the rest of the world is still within reach. Food trade has yet to be unlocked within Africa, together with its potential to raise income for farmers and enhance food security for all.