The impact of a series of crises is exacerbating vulnerabilities in Africa’s food systems. Things will get worse unless mitigating actions are taken now to safeguard Africa’s food security.

From 5-9 September, African and global business leaders will meet in Kigali, Rwanda, for the Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), the continent’s most influential gathering around Africa’s largest economic sector – agriculture and food systems. 

This year’s AGRF is probably the most significant since the Covid-19 pandemic, which not only heavily affected the 2020 and 2021 editions of the AGRF, but also the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Covid-19 has confirmed that we need to reform our food systems. “Building back better” will not be enough; we need to rethink how we produce, distribute and eat food, and to do this, African political and business leaders must think and act differently, and be willing to set different agendas that transform their food systems.

The 2022 State of Food Security and Nutrition report paints an alarming picture of Africa’s agri-food systems transformation efforts. Despite unprecedented efforts by African heads of state and government to drive regional change through country Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programmes (CAADP), the report indicates that 35m more people were affected by hunger in 2020 compared with 2019, before the Covid-19 outbreak, with an additional 15m in 2021. 

The report further shows that 20% of Africa’s population was facing hunger in 2021, compared with 9.1% in Asia. It is in Africa where the population affected by hunger has increased the most compared to other continents. This is of major concern and should worry anyone.

Number of people likely to be in food crisis or worse in 2022

Crises beset Africa

Amid the onslaught of the Covid-19 outbreak, Africa has to battle other crises: 

First: Increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns threaten Africa’s food and water security. The El Niño-induced drought during the 2015-16 cropping seasons across the Southern African countries led to higher-than-normal temperatures and erratic and low rainfall. The 2019 devastating floods in the greater Horn of Africa, the 2019-20 invasion of desert locusts in Eastern Africa, and the current looming climate-induced famine in the Horn of Africa, for example, have made Africa an exposure and vulnerability hot spot for climate variability and climate impacts.

Second: Around 2019, there came the rise in oil and gas prices – that saw a surge in crucial food commodity prices that saw an over 89% increase in price of major cereals and about a 109% in rise in fertiliser prices all just in 2 years. 

Third: And now the Russia-Ukraine crisis is further exacerbating oil and gas prices and increasing global food prices. 

The implications for these crises are more severe and Africa and its leaders need to act differently. We are now witnessing the largest cost-of-living crisis in a generation, and people’s capacity to cope is diminishing. 

Real incomes are falling and the countries’ revenues and ability to respond are declining. Without robust actions, these changes are pushing citizens and could potentially result in social and political unrest in many countries.

We need action now

The impact of these crises on existing vulnerabilities in Africa’s agri-food systems could be heightened unless mitigating actions are taken now to safeguard Africa’s food security and speed up the recovery of the agricultural sector. 

This is the moment for governments to consolidate the progress made and leverage existing structures and frameworks, including strengthening the CAADP process by adopting a more systemic view of food system transformation that goes beyond the current CAADP ambition of agricultural growth and transformation. 

National governments need to take a holistic and integrated food systems approach. After the UN Food Systems Summit, we are seeing a few countries like Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi and Rwanda making this shift to design food systems strategies and plans. This is important because a critical lesson from these crises is that food systems cannot be compartmentalised; multi-sectoral and multi-stakeholder approaches and coordination will be essential in tackling future pandemics. 

Most families in Africa are feeling the pinch. Household budgets are shrinking as affording a daily meal has become a challenge for most households in Africa. The FAO has estimated that 53% of poorer household income is spent on food compared to 20% for richer households. 

Poorer households spend about 16% of their incomes on housing while 4% is spent on transport. Families cannot send their children to school and the poorest households are the most affected, especially women and girls. 

Turning crisis into opportunity

There is a general feeling that Africa is blaming the US and other Western countries in Europe for the sanctions on Russia as the source of food insecurity. In fact, Africa is blaming itself for allowing itself to be dependent on the rest of the world for food imports – a phenomenon Africa can change. 

Africa should turn this into an opportunity to produce its own food and export rather than relying on the rest of the world for food imports. Ethiopia, for example, can produce enough wheat to feed itself rather than spend $0.7bn annually to import wheat from Russia and Ukraine. 

While appreciating the short- and long-term solutions being proposed by international organisations such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the United Nations and others, African leaders need to turn this crisis as an opportunity and wake-up call to act differently and without hesitation push for reforms on the continent and at country level.

  • The complexities of African food systems require government support with a dedicated and consistent oversight at president or prime minister level, ready to make tough decisions, deal with vested interests, and inspire others to set bold ambitions. Business as usual will not deliver the desired change.
  • While it may be structurally challenging to redesign the agriculture public service system, leaders need strong multidisciplinary local teams with the technical expertise and ability to accelerate implementation with a governance and operating model that rewards a high-performance culture while tracking progress using performance indicators and evaluation metrics that leverage scorecards such as the African Union’s Biennial Review dashboard.
  • Africa leaders need to accelerate intra-regional trade through implementing the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and other regional trade agreements in the continent. This will not only enhance and ease the moving of food from surplus to deficit regions but will also ease the movement of fertiliser being produced on the continent to trade in the rest of the world.
  • Leaders must put in place policy incentives to create efficiencies in the supply chains such as electronic-based, private sector-driven and government enabled input subsidies and supply approaches.
  • African leaders need to deliberately work to protect consumers during the ongoing crises by establishing stimulus packages and strengthening social safety nets while supporting governments facing fiscal constraints.
  • African leaders must establish and strengthen functional strategic food reserves critical to always be ready to stabilise food supplies and prices to support domestic approaches. This is notable for ensuring food security in times of crisis.
  • Lastly, taking a food systems lens has also taught us that leaders need to scale up and enhance investments in areas such as climate adaptation, conservation farming and regenerative agriculture to increase productivity in strategic food surplus producing regions across the continent while protecting the environment.

Prioritising structural transformation that is green, inclusive, and resilient will ensure that no one is left behind and Africa is better prepared for the next crisis.

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