‘Africa must increase local food production’ says IFAD chief Gilbert Houngbo

By Estelle Maussion
Posted on Tuesday, 24 May 2022 12:14

Former Prime Minister of Togo Gilbert Houngbo ©Musacchio & Ianniello

At a time when the African agricultural world is under pressure, the IFAD chief insists on the need for investment in infrastructure.

Developing countries need more than $140bn a year to address climate change. However, for 2019-2020, only $46bn was mobilised. Therefore, during the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP15) to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Drought, held in Côte d’Ivoire from 9-20 May, Gilbert Houngbo, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) president, made an appeal to do more, and faster.

The Togolese, who will take up the post as head of the International Labour Organisation in October, has headed the UN agency specialising in agriculture and food since 2017. IFAD is very active on the continent, notably through the granting of loans to small farmers, promotion of agroforestry, training in water-saving cultivation techniques and advocacy for women. Supporting the Great Green Wall project, IFAD has also pledged $130m to the Abidjan Legacy programme, launched on the sidelines of COP15, which aims to strengthen African food chains.

Despite the difficulties, this former Togolese prime minister believes in the capacity to speed things up on the climate front.

 You have insisted on the urgent need to increase funding to ensure the continent’s climate resilience. Who should pay?

Gilbert Houngbo: I prefer the term “pay” to “invest” in order to develop our infrastructure. Given that Africa accounts for only 4% to 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it would be ecologically unfair to ask it to make the largest contribution. Especially since, at the 2015 Paris climate conference, OECD countries pledged to mobilise $100bn a year to help southern countries cope with the consequences of global warming. The aim is not to obtain new commitments from them, but to implement those they have already made and to combine them with the efforts that African countries must also make.

I am worried about the risks of undermining social cohesion due to the rising cost of living

What should the private sector contribute?

If the private sector is expected to participate in financing, it must also be the driving force behind investment in technologies that will facilitate the energy transition and resilience. Innovation must help combat droughts and floods, better manage natural resources (including water), increase productivity, and speed up the processing of basic goods.

The results of the Great Green Wall, an emblematic project led by the African Development Bank and supported by a large number of partners, including IFAD, are very modest. Only 18% of the objectives were met, according to the latest evaluation published in September 2020. How can this be explained?

When it was launched 10 years ago, the project – although ambitious, pioneering and innovative because it combined both environmental and security factors – was greeted with a certain amount of scepticism. It suffered from a lack of political commitment. However, in recent years, things have changed, which will make it possible to accelerate both funding and implementation.

The fact that several countries wish to join the initiative, in addition to the 11 initial promoters, is evidence of this new dynamism. At the same time, much effort is being made to improve the synergy between the stakeholders and monitoring of the project, which guarantees better results.

In the immediate future, the continent must deal with supply difficulties and soaring food prices that are causing social tensions. Do you fear food riots?

I am worried about the risks of undermining social cohesion due to the rising cost of living, especially as production is expected to decrease due to the reduced availability of fertilisers, agricultural inputs and seeds. More generally, I am afraid that the current situation will be seen as a one-off crisis to which a short-term response will suffice before returning to business as usual.

Food imports on the continent could reach $100bn by 2025 if nothing is done

The basic problem, Africa’s food sovereignty, has long been identified…

Of course, it has. It has been exacerbated by the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic and, more recently, by the impact of the war in Ukraine. On the continent, there are about 50 countries, 30% of those imports come from Ukraine and Russia. Each year, the continent imports $70bn worth of food, an amount that will reach $100bn by 2025 if nothing is done. The solution is known: Africa must increase its local production.

How can this be achieved?

There are a number of levers to pull. Increasing African productivity is key, as it is the only way to increase the volume of harvests while ensuring competitiveness.

This requires investment in equipment and training. It is also necessary to add a minimum amount of added value – i.e. a certain degree of processing – to the commodity chains in order to better preserve products and improve farmers’ income. We also know that access to land as well as to local, national and sub-regional markets is crucial.

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