Africa: ‘All our food challenges can be solved through local expertise’

Olusegun Obasanjo
By Olusegun Obasanjo

Former President of Nigeria and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Posted on Tuesday, 13 September 2022 11:59

A labourer arranges a bag of grains as part of relief food that was sent from Ukraine at the World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Adama town, Ethiopia, September 8, 2022. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

I have been involved in Africa’s leadership for many, many years, during which I have travelled to nearly every country on the continent, and interacted with some of the greatest minds ever. In my travels, I have come to realise that all our challenges – including insufficient availability of highly-nutritious food - can be solved through local expertise.

We have the best-trained agricultural scientists and value chain managers living and working here in Africa; professionals that must now take centerstage and guide us to food security. And as they take up the mantle, I have had the liberty to prepare guidelines of where they could possibly focus their energies, and the kind of support they should demand.

Lay of the land

For a start, it is important to recognise that no other continent in the world has as many natural resources for agricultural production as Africa; we have the largest share of arable land, climates that favour the production of almost all food crops, and a workforce comprising the youngest population in the world.

Climate change, in particular, has been rapidly driven by activities far from Africa, but it is the continent’s farmers that are terribly affected.

The exploitation of these resources, if well managed, would result in the production of more food that we can consume. We, therefore, require experts’ dedication to the preparation of plans and strategies that would guide national leaders on key areas of focus for maximised outputs.

These strategies, from where I stand, must be designed with the participation of all agricultural and food system stakeholders. It is my hope that governments, the private sector, development groups and farmers will be keen on assemblage before our scientists, to both present their ideas and provide oversight over the next course of action.

To my second point, we must appreciate the fact that we are not operating in a bubble, and that some of our biggest challenges have a global bearing and, therefore, cannot be adequately addressed minus interaction with other continents. The Covid pandemic, climate change and the Russia-Ukraine conflict are some of the most recent examples of difficulties, whose solutions require consistent interaction with the rest of the world.

Climate change, in particular, has been rapidly driven by activities far from Africa, but it is the continent’s farmers that are terribly affected. Yet I am too experienced to know that blame games at the global crisis level cannot lead to meaningful solutions and that what we now need, is for our scientists and other leaders to work with their peers from around the world, and derive rapid and sustainable solutions.

Third, we have come to realise that food security alone is not enough and that it is now critical to include nutrition security. This is because while we have millions of our people that are suffering from insufficient food for consumption, there are millions of others that are dealing with food-related diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension.  Nigeria alone has over 4 million overweight children between the ages of 5 and 19, with just a 1% chance of meeting the World Health Organization’s  2025 target of halting the rise in childhood obesity and a “very poor chance” of meeting adult obesity targets.

As you can already see, such problems cannot be solved politically and the urgent need we now have for nutrition security must be science and research-led.

Future development

The aforementioned are some of my tips for the development of the food systems that Africa requires to shift away from perennial nutrition insecurity. And I do not think I can overstate the fact that the participation of scientists is instrumental. On this note, I am pleased to recognise the role of Ghanaian geneticist Eric Yirenkyi Danquah in transforming Africa’s agricultural systems.

The good professor is the founding director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI), which trains a new generation of plant breeders in developing improved varieties of staple crops in West and Central Africa.

Through his leadership, WACCI has, so far, attracted more than $30m of research and development funding and trained more than 120 PhD and 49 MPhil students from 19 countries in Seed Science and Technology. We already have early gains as WACCI-trained scientists have developed over 60 improved seed types, including superior hybrid maize varieties that are both high-yielding and highly nutritious.

It, therefore, gives me immense pleasure to see him named the 2022 Africa Food Prize Winner, where he joins a college of 24 other eminent Africans and organisations that are leading activities towards food security and economic opportunity for the continent.

The Africa Food Prize comes with a $100,000 award to help boost the work of the laureates in driving a food system transformation. We understand that, often, this amount may not be enough to cover the extent of their involvement, but it is my sincere expectation that recognition will lead to more support from other stakeholders.

This year, the selection committee of the Food Prize, received 376 nominations from 44 countries and while all were outstanding, we found Prof. Danquah the most deserving.

I am looking forward to seeing more of his disruptive work in Africa’s food system transformation.

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