The Future of Food Production in Africa
By: Leah Ngari
In some regions in Africa, COVID-19 will tip the scale from food insecurity to full fledged famine. But, if governments and NGOs work with the private sector to actualize Africa’s agricultural potential, the current crisis may also embark the continent down a path leading to agricultural self-sufficiency.
Coronavirus-induced panic buying has introduced shoppers in the United States and Europe to temporary shortages of staples such as pasta and flour for the first time in their lives. Meanwhile, people in developing countries are worried that the current trade disruptions would plunge them into famine.
The pandemic is expected to impact Africa beyond the immediate public health crisis. Since 2015, the prevalence of undernourishment on the continent has steadily increased, with extreme climate fluctuations contributing to rising food insecurity. Even without the Coronavirus, this year’s locusts outbreak – which has yet to be contained – is already putting 5 million people in East Africa at risk for starvation. And African farmers often lack regular internet access, which can impede farmers from efficiently utilizing their land and resources.
Covid-19 lockdowns and border closers have already brought to light deep vulnerabilities in the global food supply chain. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Food Programme (WFP), twenty-seven countries worldwide – over half of which are in Africa – are on the brink of a Covid-19-driven food crisis.
As the head of the World Food Program warned the UN Security Council:
Currently, the biggest challenge to Africa’s food security is that despite its vast agricultural potential, the region is still a net food importer. As a result, disturbances in the global food supply chain that limit access to food imports hit Africa particularly hard. But Africa has the building blocks – including a large population working in agriculture and abundant, fertile land – necessary to grow all of its own food and even produce a surplus. Over the past years, foundations and NGOs have invested in farmer education, improved inputs, irrigation projects, and other such initiatives that can help farmers increase both the quality and quantity of their yields. Private agribusinesses and entrepreneurs who invest in African agriculture can remove some of the obstacles that are currently keeping African farmers from achieving their land’s full potential.
Now is the time to revolutionize agriculture in Africa
If current trends continue, the future in much of Africa looks bleak. But the current crisis also presents an opportunity for Africa to develop and modernize its agriculture sector, which would put the region on a path towards food security and economic prosperity. Countries that wish to use the current crisis as an opportunity to enhance their food security, improve the resilience of their food supply chain, and reach self-sufficiency in food production can take several steps:
Many farmers in Africa concentrate their efforts on growing a single staple crop (often maize). This lack of diversification not only makes it hard for farmers to receive adequate nutrition; it also makes their fields less resilient to climate change and erratic weather patterns. One of the obstacles to diversification is convincing farmers – and the greater population – to prepare and eat a more varied diet. Since the pandemic might make certain staple foods less available, governments now have an excellent opportunity to educate the public on the health benefits of lesser-known crops. Governments can also run public education campaigns to teach the people that adequate overall nutrition means more than just a minimum amount of daily calories. Companies and entrepreneurs can provide inputs and guidance to farmers on planting and caring for unfamiliar crops.
b) Farmer education
Farmers on the continent often employ traditional farming techniques that have been passed down over the generations. But advances in agriculture have revolutionized agricultural practices and led to much of the world growing more abundant yields of sturdier and more nutritious crops. Introducing and improving national and regional farmer education projects can help farmers get the most out of their time in the field.
65% of land in Sub-Saharan Africa is still tilled, plowed, and weeded manually. Due to the availability of physical labor, lack of funds, and other structural reasons, farmers in the region tend not to invest in modern tools and equipment. The lockdown, which has limited laborers’ availability in many markets, may encourage farm owners to shift to machine use over human labor. Investors and entrepreneurs can work together to establish machine-lending schemes that would allow farmers to reap the benefits of mechanization without purchasing expensive equipment that is used only a couple of months a year.
d) Invest in Infrastructure
Africa’s underdeveloped infrastructure poses a considerable challenge to farmers’ productivity and profitability. The scarcity of roads in rural areas makes it difficult for farmers to move their crops to the local markets. The prevalence of unpaved roads and inadequate port facilities on much of the continent hinders national and inter-African trade and makes African countries dangerously dependent on imports shipped by air from outside the region. Lack of access to electricity also hinders Africans’ ability to establish food manufacturing facilities and add value locally to the agricultural raw materials.
Lastly, investing in irrigation and other water technologies would allow farmers to use current inputs to dramatically improve their yields. Without neglecting large scale irrigation investments, governments and donor organizations can also fund farmer-led informal irrigation ventures.
The current crisis, which has underscored the importance of functional infrastructure at the local, domestic, and regional level, may encourage renewed efforts to close Africa’s infrastructure gap.
e) Establish national food stockpiles
Many African countries do not currently have national emergency food stockpiles. Instead, they rely on foodstuff imported on a need-to-need basis to adequately feed their citizens. The pandemic may drive these countries to build storage warehouses and stock up on food when the regular food supply is disrupted. Investments are likely to be made in the growth and expansion of crop storage capacities to have more significant food stockpiles. In addition to directly improving food security, crop storage facilities will also help mitigate the significant post-harvest losses that African farmers currently experience.
In parallel, the private sector can step in to establish communal storage centers, where farmers can pay for storage services with a portion of the grain put in storage. With some more investment, companies can build these storage facilities into holistic support centers for farmers that provide inputs, guidance, and equipment.
f) Encourage local food production
The current crisis has highlighted many African countries’ dependence on imported foods. What happens when an exporting country cuts off the supply?
When Vietnam announced what turned out to be a temporary ban on rice exports, many experts worried that scarcity would push up the price of food staples beyond the reach of many. Although Vietnam’s rice exports to Africa have since resumed, this episode could serve as a wake-up call for countries to encourage local production and transition towards food self-sufficiency. Now is an ideal time for governments to move their countries away from a reliance on imports. States can institute policies that protect local producers, such as “smart” subsidies as part of sustainable soil fertility management practices.
g) Increased Intra-African Trade
The African Continental Free Trade Area, which entered into force in May 2019, was designed to remove trade barriers that currently inhibit internal trade on the continent. According to experts, the AfCTA is expected to increase intra-African trade in agricultural products 20 to 30 percent, with the highest gains in sugar, vegetables, fruit, nuts, beverages, and dairy products. The current pandemic that has highlighted the risks of relying on air and sea cargo shipments for basic foodstuff could make increasing inter-African trade an even bigger priority for African governments. And if prices for staples such as rice and wheat rise due to Covid-19 induced scarcities, poorer countries may be unable to compete with wealthier buyers and lose out on critical products. Internal commerce will increase as people shift to local food producers and manufacturers. Thus, Intra-African traffic may grow even as the traffic between Africa and the rest of the world slows down.
h) Influx of Youth into Agriculture
Africa’s younger generations’ seeming lack of interest in agricultural work has long been bemoaned by African governments and policy experts. Now that Covid-19 has heavily limited urban employment opportunities, more and more people on the continent are trying their hand at farming. The influx of young, entrepreneurial individuals in African agriculture can revolutionize agricultural practices and business models.
i) Agriculture and Technology
With most people spending even more time indoors due to lockdowns, ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) use has increased globally. As a result, governments and international organizations are redoubling their efforts to increase digital literacy in Africa. This, in turn, will also help Africa’s farmers produce more food, since the increased use of the internet also increases agricultural knowledge.
Effects on Aid
Traditional donor countries such as the US and UK are now facing their own economic crises. So far, states have heeded international organizations’ call for funds, with countries such as Germany and the UK contributing tens of millions of dollars to the WHO’s Coronavirus emergency fund. Given Covid-19’s economic toll on the global economy, however, regular fund transfers and aid for non-Coronavirus programs is likely to decrease significantly. With less foreign funds and expertise, local talent and production will need to fill in the gap.
The current pandemic may plunge much of Africa into a long term economic and public health crisis. The continent is young, and its demographic gives it an advantage in battling the Coronavirus. In the medium and long term, however, one of the region’s most pressing concerns is the pandemic’s effect on Africa’s food security.
The IMF has stated that 2020 will be a year of reckoning for the world’s food systems. In some regions, such as the European Union, the pandemic highlighted the urgency of transitioning towards a healthier and more sustainable food production system. The EU is now focussing on offsetting the biodiversity loss caused by industrial agriculture practices that have made humanity more vulnerable to virus outbreaks.
Governments in Africa can also take this opportunity to establish measures that will help their population weather the current emergency and develop long-term food security. Creating these programs will require funding from international institutions such as the Worldbank and IMF as well as cooperation from the local, regional, and global private sector. But it can be done. By working together, the current crisis can serve as a turning point for agriculture on the continent.