Africa could produce enough food ‘to feed the world’ if agricultural sector not neglected

By Fred Harter
Posted on Tuesday, 18 October 2022 14:37

Internally displaced Somali woman Habiba Bile holds her surviving goat following severe droughts near Dollow, Gedo Region, Somalia May 26, 2022. Picture taken May 26, 2022. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

Decades of neglect have hamstrung Africa's agriculture sector leaving millions on the continent vulnerable to "external shocks" that have led to millions going hungry, policy experts warned at a high-level conference on food security at the African Union in Addis Ababa earlier this month.

The continent is currently in the grip of the worst food crisis for a generation. Around 282 million people are food insecure across Africa, 46 million more than in 2019. The figure could rise to 310 million by 2030, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

In the short-term, a series of external shocks are behind the crisis, including:

  • Covid-19: Interruptions to global trade disrupted international markets and the flow of food to Africa. Many African countries followed more developed ones in ordering lockdowns, but did not introduce financial packages to support businesses, while funding for humanitarian projects dried up. As a result, millions of people were pushed out of work and left unable to feed their families.
  • Climate change: Rising global temperatures have seen extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, become more frequent. Four consecutive failed rainy seasons – the driest conditions in 40 years – in the Horn of Africa have killed 3.5 million livestock and left 36 million people facing hunger.  The Sahel, meanwhile, is suffering from desertification and seeing temperatures rise that are 1.5 times faster than the global average.
  • Global price increases: Increased fuel prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused spikes in the price of food, cooking oil, and fertiliser. The war has also disrupted the supply of grain to the continent, which sources 44% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

“Even just one shock, one drought and one single failed rainy season, can destabilise systems of production and livelihoods,” says Abebe Haile-Gabriel, an assistant director-general and the regional representative for Africa at the FAO. “So when you have a multitude of protracted shocks that come together, it’s catastrophic.”

‘Productivity is very, very low’

African governments have little control over the underlying causes of these external shocks. However, Abebe also says Africa’s systems are also “excessively vulnerable” to such crises due to decades of under-investment in agriculture and food systems.

“The biggest issue is productivity is very, very low, even when you have the best weather conditions,” Abebe tells The Africa Report on the sidelines of the AU conference. African farmers produce just 1,500kg of cereals per hectare, compared to 3,382 kg per hectare in South Asia and 4,700kg per hectare in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to figures from the World Bank.

These low yields leave Africa dependent on imports. Despite the continent possessing 65% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, the continent’s food import bill has tripled over the last decade. As a result, price surges on global food markets, like the ones sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hit Africa particularly hard.

It means that in the rural areas […], whatever little that is produced is consumed and there is no surplus that could support other sectors.

Abebe says investment in irrigation, technology and improved yields could boost productivity, but their utilisation remains “at a very rudimentary stage”.

“Yield enhancing factors are not being used at a level that could change the situation,” he says. “It means that in the rural areas, where most people in Africa live and where dependence on agriculture is high, whatever little that is produced is consumed and there is no surplus that could support other sectors.”

In 2003, African heads of state committed to spending 10% of their national budgets on agriculture in order to boost productivity by 2008 under the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. However, nearly two decades on, only a fraction have met the target.

“We need to focus on building resilience through investments to transform agriculture,” says Abebe. “These solutions are not necessarily expensive. Small investments – I’m talking about less than $100 – can make a huge impact on the food security of a family for a number of months.”

Low productivity in African agriculture is well-documented and policy institutions, such as the African Development, long pumped out reports containing simple recommendations that could boost yields.

Potential food exporter, not importer

According to Agnes Kalibata, the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), if the proportion of African farmers using improved seeds rises from 25% to 50%, Africa would be able to produce enough food to feed itself. If the number rose to 75%, African farmers would produce enough food to “feed the rest of the world”, she says.

We have lots of advantages: we have good land, we have water and our population is very young, but we don’t invest in the sector.

“I think the biggest problem is not taking action when you should, little problems have been left to sit for too long,” Kalibata says. “You have to ask yourself: why is Africa dealing with a food crisis? We could be a global exporter of food, but instead we are a net importer of food, with minimal trade between ourselves.”

She says: “The answers are known. The technologies are there. These things were done a century ago by everybody else. What we need to do is adopt them and incorporate them into our lives, but we just haven’t. We knew climate change was coming, but we just buried our heads in the sand…. For me, I’m sorry to say, we have a real failure of political leadership.”

Back to investments…

Josepha Sacko, the African Unions commissioner for agriculture, tells The Africa Report that the lack of investment is “the main reason the agriculture sector is not moving” and vulnerable to outside shocks. Without access to finance, farmers cannot purchase the fertilisers, improved seeds or tractors needed to boost yields and produce surpluses, she says.

“We have lots of advantages: we have good land, we have water and our population is very young, but we don’t invest in the sector,” says Sacko. “Governments should really come out with a proper structure for reforming agriculture.”

This point was echoed by Ahmed Mathobe Nunow, Somalia’s agriculture minister, who says: “The [agricultural] sector for too long has been marginalised and treated as something peripheral.”

His country is the worst-affected by Africa’s food crisis. Drought has left 7.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, while Al-Shabaab’s Islamist insurgency has cut off large swathes of the country from aid distributions.

“I have no doubt that we are seeing famine on our watch in Somalia, and it is the first of, I fear, more to be announced in the Horn of Africa,” UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said in an interview earlier this month.

Oxfam estimates that one person is likely to die every 36 seconds between now and the end of the year across the Horn of Africa. Somalia is seeing “the worst hunger crisis in living memory, with the number of people experiencing acute hunger already surpassing that of the 2011 famine, when more than a quarter of a million people died”, the aid group said in a recent statement.

Africa’s hunger crisis is biting at a time when funding for life saving humanitarian relief is drying up. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), only 36% of country-specific humanitarian responses have been funded in 2022. This jeopardises “the success of short-term life-saving interventions that can build the foundation upon which the necessary longer-term transformation can follow,” says Hasfa Maalim of SIPRI.

Conflict is a culprit

Maalim and other policy experts told the conference in Addis Ababa that conflict is a key driver of food insecurity on the continent, as it displaces communities, leaving them unable to harvest their crops and dependent on humanitarian support.

“If you interpose the hunger hotspots and the conflicts on the continent, you will see a direct correlation between the two,” says Solomon Ayele Dersso, the managing director of the Amani Africa think-tank.

‘Silencing the guns’ will require sustained engagement and political will on the part of African leaders in the long-term. In Ethiopia, the AU is trying to broker a peace deal between rebels from the northern Tigray region and the country’s federal government, but has so far failed to make a breakthrough.

Around five million people in Tigray are going hungry as a result of the conflict. Renewed fighting since late August has once again cut the region off from aid trucks, while its road, banking and telecommunication links have been cut off for more than a year, a situation the EU has called a “partial blockade”.

“When there is a conflict, everyone should apply humanitarian law,” says Francesco Rocca, the head of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “Nothing can excuse the delay [i]n aid, this is a mandatory imperative for both sides. We need to ensure the neutral distribution of the aid according to impartial needs.”

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