How African food systems continue struggle to meet most basic need

Friday May 14 2021

Harvesting greens in Amudat, northern Uganda. The area bordering Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia has witnessed inter-ethnic strife and drought in years past. PHOTO | AFP


As African leaders spoke at the High-level Virtual Dialogue on Feeding Africa last week, one thing stood out; Africa knows its food systems are caught in a mare’s nest.

Nonetheless, the 17 heads of state attending the event organised to galvanise action around ending hunger and malnutrition on the continent by investing more in agriculture said they would “eliminate hunger within the next 10 years”, in a statement of commitments that will be forwarded as Africa’s commitment towards the UN Food System Summit 2021.

The contradictions

But Africa has made a lot of promises about ending hunger in the past. And even though the continent is said to be producing more food than it has ever done before, still, not much seems to have changed in the way of persistent hunger for more than 250 million Africans who often find themselves with no access to proper food.

According to CGIAR Special Representative to the United Nations Food Systems Summit, Kanayo Felix Nwanze, at the heart of Africa’s struggle for economic growth and food security is the contradiction of evidence that shows a great return of investment from agricultural research and development than any other sector, yet, countries continue to prioritise investment in other sectors.

“As of 2019, only four African nations were on course to meet agricultural development targets by 2025, while food imports continue to rise every year and are projected to reach $100 billion by 2030. Bringing forth the second contradiction of an Africa that has historically relied on external partners for its agricultural development,” he said.


“Over the past five to seven years, research institutions across the continent have had to contend with shortfalls in funding, putting Africa at a critical juncture in its goal to accelerate progress towards greater food security.”

Despite 60 percent of the world’s arable uncultivated land being in Africa, the continent remains a net importer of food with an annual import bill of around $80 billion.

Also, 70 percent of Africans could not afford a healthy diet, even prior to the Covid-19-related health and economic crisis. Africa is facing a looming food crisis with 55 percent of the world’s hungry domiciled on the continent.

With a current population of 1.3 billion people it is anticipated Africa will have a population of two billion by 2050.

The High-Level Dialogue on Feeding Africa virtual forum, attended by among others global representatives Tony Blair former British Prime Minister now founder of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, highlighted the same old systemic bottlenecks and vulnerabilities ranging from hitches from land tenure, deprived soils, poor rains and changing weather patterns, low levels of agro-processing, poor post-harvest handling, lack of adequate resources, etc.

Farming group.

Green Rock farming group members in Taita Taveta, southeastern Kenya, weigh green beans. Members are taught the nutritional value of a variety of foods. PHOTO | AFP

According to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, the agriculture sector in Africa (excluding North Africa) is expected to need eight times more fertiliser and six times more seed than it currently uses in order to fulfil its yield and production potential.

The research paper also says Africa still has the lowest levels of agro-processing anywhere in the world because of its reliance on the export of raw commodities. Agro-processing gross value added as a share of total GDP in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda is only between three and four percent.

Furthermore, post-harvest losses and wastage during and after food processing also represent a major loss for African agriculture. It is estimated that 48 million people every year south of the Sahara could be fed on the post-harvest wastages alone. Even if crop yields increased, significant investment needs to be channelled into post-harvest handling, including storage and processing for local food supply to be resilient.

While weak infrastructure and poorly functioning food markets add on to the rising price of food for consumers, a key challenge for farmers to access markets for their products is often the weak state of roads and infrastructure on most of the continent that goes unattended.

But limitations span too, complex political systems, powerful lobby groups with vested interests and the presence of multiple uncoordinated actors.

This meeting explored the vulnerabilities and called on African governments and the global community to take a different approach to transform the sector.

Concrete suggestions

Senegal President Macky Sall, said Africa’s ability to achieve food and nutrition security hinged on moving from traditional farming methods with basic tools to a system of modern production supported by research, productivity, sustainability, diversification and local infrastructural transformation, as well as access to credit for farmers.

Ethiopia President Sahle-Work Zewde said prevailing circumstances had steeped 16 countries into acute hunger. She said her government was advancing programmes to reform agriculture to deal with the issue of chronic hunger.

“Very few countries have achieved middle income status without first transforming agriculture. Agriculture has been the foundation for many other sectors to grow and flourish,” she said.

The two-day event organised by the AfDB and UN agency International Fund for Agricultural Development, was meant to hatch a pan-African framework to food security post-Covid-19 and ahead of the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome on July 19-21, launch bold new actions to deliver progress.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame said encouraging young African graduates to engage in farming could unlock the potential of Africa’s agriculture to achieve food security.

According to President of Zambia Edgar Lungu in his country, like in many others on the continent, in spite of work done in the area of research and development in the sector, “most of their findings end up collecting dust on shelves and the ordinary farmers do not benefit from their findings.”

Out of the 49 Member States that reported on progress in implementing the Malabo Declaration during this 2019 biennial review cycle, only four countries including Rwanda, Morocco, Mali and Ghana are on-track to achieve the Malabo commitments by 2025.