Food Security

Africa’s challenges and hope for the world

Putting food on Africa’s table

Despite its reputation for famine, droughts, food shortages and malnutrition, Africa is increasingly seen as having immense potential to help feed a hungry world.

 The changing reality around the continent was reflected by the African Union (AU) declaring 2014 its Year of Agriculture and Food Security. And African heads of state at the 23rd AU Summit adopted the “Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods”.

Present in Addis Ababa to help turn political commitment into meaningful action was the 2014 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), bringing together some 1 000 leaders of government, agri-businesses, farmers’ organisations and more, to generate the required strategies.

 Needless to say, sceptics will ponder the question: Is this all just hot air, or can Africa really put the food on the table?

Some facts:

 ·       Africa’s population is set to increase from its present 1.1 billion to 2.4 billion by 2050;

 ·       214 million sub-Saharan Africans currently face some type of food crisis;

 ·       200 million Africans are chronically malnourished;

 ·       5 million Africans die each year as a result of hunger;

 ·       Africa has more unexploited arable land than any other continent;

 ·       500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa depend on 3.46 billion acres of community held farmland;

 ·       Africa is making slower progress in achieving international hunger-reduction targets than other regions;

 ·       More than 65% of all Africans are employed in the agricultural sector; and

 ·       The majority of sub-Saharan Africa's food is produced by small-scale farmers, who are being pushed off their land as governments and companies from food-importing countries target Africa for their own needs.

 It was with this grim picture in mind that the Malabo Declaration was adopted focusing on how to deliver agriculture-led economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa, establish food security and improve nutritional quality across the continent.



Jeske van Seters, Deputy Head of Programme Food Security at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM) on her blog lists what she calls “three key takeaways from the summit”:

·       Contrary to opinions that summit themes “are empty shells and hardly accompanied by an intensive agenda” the heads of states adopted a “remarkably ambitious set of concrete goals to be reached by 2025”;

·       “Perhaps most importantly a set of new goals showing a more targeted approach focusing on employment, post-harvest losses, climate smart agriculture were agreed”, and

 ·       The focus broadened beyond spending and production with concrete targets, such as a 50% reduction in post-harvest losses, creating job opportunities for at least 30% of the youth in agricultural value chains, ensuring that at least 30% of farm, pastoral and fisher households will be resilient to climate and weather related risks. Much attention also goes to improving the functioning of agricultural markets and intra-African trade, with an ambitious goal to triple intra-African trade in agricultural commodities.”

 But, she also points out; progress in achieving previous ambitious targets set a decade ago in the context of the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme has been slow.

 They undertook to allocate at least 10% of public spending to agriculture and achieve 6% annual agricultural growth. Most AU members failed to put this into practice. Since 2003 only 13 countries have met or surpassed the public spending target. While overall agricultural production has increased, it remained well below the annual 6% growth target.

 What could make the difference this time around is in Van Seter’s second “takeaway” – the considerable emphasis placed at the Summit on “agriculture as a business, with calls for increasing private sector investments and value addition”.

 Leaders committed to creating a more enabling environment for private agriculture investment, agri-business and agro-industries.

 They also propose to establish and strengthen public-private partnerships “with strong linkage to smallholder agriculture”.

 Smallholder farmers produce the vast majority of food grown on the continent and are the backbone of a sector employing more than 65% of all Africans, according to the chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, Strive Masiyiwa.  

 “Importantly, rather than a choice between large-scale farming and agri-businesses versus small-scale farmers and small and medium enterprises, they will co-exist,” he said.

 Van Seters’ third “takeaway” is the request to the AU Commission and NEPAD Planning and Coordinating Agency to develop an implementation strategy and roadmap translating the 2025 vision and goals into reality – putting words into action.

 The Ethiopian trap

 It’s going to be a very difficult balancing act to find the right equilibrium between small-scale farming, commercial farming for domestic consumption and large-scale farming driven by foreign export directed agri-businesses.

Ethiopia may be a good case in point. In recent decades it frequently made international headlines with periodic famine and acute malnutrition, especially among its children. It also has vast tracts of potential agricultural land.

 Yet, instead of producing crops for home consumption, Ethiopia’s government leases millions of hectares to foreign companies that produce food for export to their home countries and markets such as China, India, Saudi Arabia and Europe.

 For example, some two-thirds of western Ethiopia’s Gambela region is leased to the Bangalore-based Karuturi global food company for the next 50 years. The rest of the region is covered by a national park.

 Whole villages are relocated, forests cleared, livestock driven out, rivers diverted and swamps drained, all to make way for producing flowers, rice and palm oil for export. Government claims it is in the interest of job creation, developing agricultural technology and generating foreign currency income.  

 It is a scenario increasingly playing itself out in many other African countries, including Mozambique, Liberia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan. Besides soybeans, maize and other food produced for export, often agricultural land is used for the biofuels market and other non-nutrition focused crops.

 “Africa is seen as underperforming and in control of valuable resources that capital seeks for profitable purposes. Africa is seen as a possible new frontier to make profits, with an eye on land, food and biofuels in particular,” says the African Centre for Biosafety.

 Land grabbing in Africa is intensifying and spreading. NGOs estimate that in eastern Africa alone, 310 land deals have been completed since 2000. All of which underpins why the Malabo Declaration calls for a more balanced and sustainable approach, says the centre.

 Other obstacles

 There are also many other obstacles. Africa’s small-scale farmers lack knowledge, experience and funds to improve their yields. Many governments’ support and funding programmes exist on paper only and many African farmers are set in th traditional practices of many generations – often suspicious of new technology, farming methods and new partners.

 Rob Bailey  Research Director; Energy, Environment and Resources at Chatham House says increasing agricultural productivity and adapting farming to climate change are central to Africa’s development prospects.

 “There are important opportunities to enhance yields and increase resilience through the adoption of improved crop varieties,” he says, citing biotechnology such as genetic modification (GM) as an example.  

 “Multiple barriers inhibit the development and adoption of pro-poor GM varieties in Africa. On the demand side, farmers may be reluctant to adopt GM varieties, owing to a lack of export opportunities and distrust of the technology among local consumers. Farmers may also be concerned about exploitation by transnational seed companies, despite the fact that development of new GM technologies in Africa is dominated by the public sector.

 “On the supply side, donor funding struggles to match the long timescales of research and development, while incentives among research scientists may be poorly aligned with farmer outcomes. Non-existent, poorly functioning or overly punitive regulatory regimes discourage investment,” says Bailey.

In the longer term it will be a question of which one outweighs the other: suspicion, barriers and exploitation, or opportunity, partnerships and a new spirit of commitment as presented in the Malabo Declaration. But Africa cannot afford to postpone.

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by Stef Terblanche

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