Virus revives Africa’s food supply, falling number of farmers fears

Saturday March 28 2020

Farmers cultivate maize on a farm in Kakamega, western Kenya. Africa needs leaders to encourage citizens to engage in subsistence farming. PHOTO | ISAAC WALE | NMG


A global shutdown sparked by the coronavirus pandemic is finally here, exposing the continent’s low capacity to produce enough food for its people, and heralding an opportunity to discuss how best Africa can stand on its own with respect to food security.

In 1972, under the then Colonel Ignatius Acheampong and the National Redemption Council, Ghana implemented a well-intentioned programme, Operation Feed Yourself. The aim was to increase farming food crops for domestic consumption and ultimately build self-sufficiency.

Citizens were rallied to the farms through media programmes. Loans, subsidised farm inputs, and duty-free importation of agricultural machinery were provided. Collection, transportation, storing and trading of food crops was coordinated.

Ghanaians from all walks of life received the programme enthusiastically and embraced farming, reared livestock, planted and harvested crops.

No space was spared. Even those living in crowded urban areas cultivated kitchen gardens or backyard farms. Everybody in Ghana was proud to have a farm, no matter how small.

Operation Feed Yourself led to the declaration, in 1974, of Ghana as self-sufficient in rice production, sadly, this is no longer the case as the world food crisis and problems in collecting and marketing the crops eventually reduced its impact.


Over the years, attempts at food sufficiency have been pursued in many African countries with varying degrees of success. Uganda produces cereals and legumes for both the domestic and export market.

Nigeria has reached self-sufficiency in rice, the staple food of the country with thousands of bags of ‘rice pyramids’ unveiled in several states such as Kebbi, Taraba and Kano. Through concessionary funding of agriculture, populous Nigeria has become Africa’s largest producer of rice.

Foreign donors

With Africa unable or unwilling to produce food to meet its needs, scarce national resources are required to import food or create reliance on the benevolence of foreign donors, compromising our food security either way.

Africa’s reliance on imported food stuff should therefore remain a major concern at this time of global lockdown, as the continent was once a major exporter of agricultural products but it still possesses vast agricultural potential. Each year, agricultural imports grow faster than exports in a continent home to 50 per cent of the world’s cultivable land and to vast amounts of water.

Many regions in Africa able to raise huge amounts of agricultural produce suffer poor infrastructure and inability to reach markets. Corruption and mismanagement of local agricultural industries and co-operatives has also worn down the continent’s food sufficiency.

Retired General George Amamoo, an award-winning backyard farmer from Ghana pointed out another reason for the lack of enthusiasm in Africa’s agriculture as the emergence of educated middle class Africans. This class grew up on yam, cassava, sweet potatoes and bananas—foods they now shun for imported spaghetti, beans, sardine and canned beef and beans.

A peek into the shopping trolley of ‘educated’ Africans bracing for a lockdown proves this fact. Sausages, bacon, yoghurt, butter and cakes is their staple foods. This class often considers farming not worth their while, leading to a shortage of farmers.

Build capacity

I would consider it something more sinister. It is an adoration of everything foreign, an inferiority complex that sees so many Africans clamouring to leave the continent. Ironically, coronavirus, so globalist in character, is teaching us no one is superior to the other.

What is the continental strategy to build capacity to feed ourselves? Where will the ideology that will guide actions to make Africa rise again after the pandemic and address the structural causes of food insecurity come from? The lockdown presents an opportunity for Africa to rely on itself by ending benchmarking visits to the western world and promoting African universities fostering farmer and student exchange visits.

As a moral crisis the coronavirus pandemic demands that humanity changes and leaders be on hand to lead this change. This outbreak will make and break communities and demand the continent’s leaders demystify colonial borders, grow interdependence of African countries on food security and reconcile traditional and modern methods of farming.

The continent needs leaders to encourage citizens to engage in subsistence farming. These means encouraging people who are not everyday farmers such as lawyers, nurses, teachers, office workers and labourers to grow their own food.

Nobody knows how long this will last, however, history shows that pandemics come and go.

Wise leaders find ways of ensuring citizens feed themselves, keep them healthy while imposing an import restriction to ensure food is sourced locally.

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides [email protected]