Investigating African Food Sovereignty and Food Independence
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Change Management

Investigating African Food Sovereignty and Food Independence

November 29, 2022

7 min read

Imane Zarhooni

Imane Zarhooni

African nations must redouble efforts towards food security and food independence, rethinking and reorganizing how they grow, procure and distribute resources to feed their growing populations. The COVID pandemic and the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict disrupted global supply chains, and continue to complicate access to essential agricultural inputs and products around the world. These include everything from seeds and fertilizer to grains, wheat, and cooking oils. In 2022 shortages and inflation are being compounded by global increases in energy prices, which majorly affect agricultural practices and supply chains. They are also being exacerbated by extreme weather conditions attributed to climate change, which have affected crops and expected harvests. 

Food in a Globalized World

For years complex globalized food supply chains created opportunities for economic diversification and specialization, and guaranteed consistent and safe food supplies for nations. Global supply chains allowed the procurement of food staples like grains and cereals from other continents and birthed the concept of the supermarket, stocked with out-of-season goods from halfway across the planet. In 2020, 80% of nations were dependent to some extent on imported foods and it is estimated that one of every five calories people eat crossed at least one international border. The historic trend towards intercontinental food interdependence explains how Russia became the world’s leading producer of fertilizer, and how Ukraine came to be known as the “breadbasket of the world.”

The risks associated with foreign food dependence far outweigh the benefits, particularly in times of global crisis. These risks are most dangerous in low and middle-income food-importer countries, where adequate resilience strategies and social protections are lacking. These countries have populations that spend a greater portion of their income on food, compared to richer countries, and are thus more vulnerable to market shocks and price hikes, which can render basic foods unaffordable. 

African countries provide a clear illustration of the risks of being overly dependent on foreign powers for food security. In African countries, food accounts for 50%-60% of spending. By comparison, UK households spend 11% of their income on food. The region is often cited as having 60% of the world’s arable land, yet it remains a major importer of food, with an underdeveloped local agricultural system. Over the past few decades, Africa’s food import bill tripled, recently reaching around $35bn a year.  Moreover, Africa greatly depends on international assistance for food aid. While roughly 10% of the global population goes hungry (WFP), in Africa this number is closer to 20%.

The Russian invasion led to the closing of Black Sea ports and passageways, halting key food exports. Together, Russia and Ukraine had come to produce one-third of the world’s wheat, 19% of the world’s corn, and 80% of its sunflower supply (Lalljee 2022). The effects of the war were felt everywhere, even in countries that did not export directly from the region. Without a decrease in overall demand, global food prices and agricultural commodities skyrocketed, surpassing record pandemic highs. The United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that “moderate or severe food insecurity has been slowly increasing” around the world since 2014, but in 2020 “the increase was as much as the previous five years combined.” In 2021, global food prices rose by 30%, while 770 million people went hungry, “the highest number for 15 years.” Thus, food inflation following the invasion further destabilized societies that were already struggling to recover. According to the UN’s World Food Program (WFP), by June 2022 the number of acute food insecure people – i.e people whose “access to food in the short term has been restricted to the point that their lives and livelihoods are at risk” –increased to 345 million in 82 countries and numbers are expected to keep growing. 

In Africa, where fourteen countries depend on Russia and Ukraine for more than half of their wheat exports the consequences have been particularly devastating. For example, Egypt, Cameroon, and Nigeria “get more than half of their imported calories” from the warring neighbors. In 2022, the World Food Program declared food emergencies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Northern Eastern Nigeria, Northern Mozambique, Sahel, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. 

It seems unlikely that the food crisis will end any time soon. According to Money Week, fuel costs will remain high in 2023, continuing to impact fertilizer costs, which are already up fourfold. Another factor is climate. In 2022 droughts from the US to France to China and East Africa hurt harvests, with impacts that will reverberate into the following years. In May, the UN secretary-general warned that the “specter of a global food shortage” could last for years.

In July, Russia and Ukraine approved a UN-drafted agreement to allow the safe passage of ships along a Black Sea corridor. It permits Ukraine to resume exports of agricultural products to reduce food shortages, avoid famines and bring down the price of food around the world. The agreement has been successful but it is temporary, and already encountered issues that complicate the arrival of agricultural products to Africa. These include priority and security risks, bureaucratic obstacles, problems with shipping companies, and questionable grain qualities. Considering ongoing international conflict, regional violence, soaring temperatures, and drought in the Horn of Africa, African Nations have a vested interest in developing more local and resilient agricultural systems and supply chains. 

Beyond resilience and independence, there are many benefits to more local food systems, including decreased food waste, food costs, and greenhouse gasses. However, realizing a new vision will require extensive research, education, collaboration, and most importantly, time and funding. To illustrate, a 2011 study looked at the possibility of boosting African agricultural productivity by 50% by moving farmers from rain-dependence to modern irrigation systems. The move would require US $65 billion over the course of 20 years (You et al. 2011).

Short-term solutions

The WFP’s Regional Director for Western Africa recently stated: “soaring food and fuel prices will not only put millions at risk of hunger; they are also forcing WFP into an impossible situation of having to take from the hungry to feed the starving.” (WFP 2022). Clearly, short-term food security strategies should remain a priority as countries work towards food independence. African governments and local actors must continue to implore the international community to cooperate and fund emergency food assistance programs. This is especially important considering that 60% of the worlds hungry live in hard-to-access conflict areas like South Sudan, or Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where starvation is being intentionally weaponized in drought conditions. Strategies for ensuring that nutritious food is affordable and accessible to everyone” while preventing civil unrest, will vary for each nation. They may include introducing social protections such as adequate subsidies and price controls; removing harmful import tariffs, and reducing non-tariff trade barriers and value-added taxes that drive up the price of food.

Long-term solutions: Unlocking Africa’s arable land potential

Farmers are essential to Africa, where agriculture provides employment for two-thirds of the population and is “by far the most important economic activity on the continent.” However, only 6% of Africa’s total land area is being used for permanent crops and most farming is subsistence farming. The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) estimates that “75%-90% of food crops are produced by small and medium-sized farmers, but inefficient markets and a lack of access to finance and services often lead to waste and loss.” Limited knowledge, limited access to new technologies, and archaic systems of land ownership also contribute to low productivity levels. Farmers in Africa produce less food per hectare than the world average. This explains why in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 60% of the population depends on agriculture for food and income (FAO 2021), most of the region’s poorest people are farmers.

African farmers will need assistance to boost labor and land productivity in ways that allow them to support themselves as well as their communities. Assistance can take many forms and will also mean ensuring that distribution and consumption systems are functioning optimally. Strengthening the links between farmers, as well as the productive alliances between producers, buyers and the public sector is essential. Opportunities abound along the supply chain for entrepreneurs to develop innovations that improve yields and competitiveness, while better linking farmers to markets. Governments must work to create policy frameworks and regulatory environments that facilitate investment and collaboration, promote innovation in agriculture, allow the development of local markets, and streamline local and cross-border supply chains. This will also mean taking advantage of opportunities presented by the African Continental Free Trade Arrangement (AfCTA) – the world’s largest free trade agreement – “to scale up production and benefit from expanded regional markets.”  Through AfCTA, the opening of Nigeria’s fertilizer plant, the largest on the continent, presents major opportunities to overcome cost challenges for essential inputs. 

To boost yields, investing in research, learning from failed strategies, and embracing climate-resistant technologies will be essential. Facilitating access to seeds, fertilizer and mechanization is always important but will only work if accompanied by technical and financial assistance tailored to local needs. The same applies to opportunities in Agtech, which are broad, especially considering that “farms hold massive amounts of data”, key to understanding and improving food security. AI-powered tools such as weather satellites could allow farmers to evaluate crop conditions and apply precision techniques that reduce the use of harmful fertilizers. 

Multidisciplinary collaboration and the right alliances are fundamental to obtaining funding, know-how, and experience. One way to accelerate progress may include partnering with projects such as One Acre Fund. The Fund supplies “1 million smallholder farmers” in the region with “everything they need to grow more food and make more money” in sustainable ways. Another interesting partnership includes the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria, which has been researching and developing high-performing varieties of crops and designing more appropriate cropping systems for decades. 

Outside of Africa, alliances with foreign powers and businesses can be beneficial, as long as African sovereignty and independence are prioritized. Examples of such collaborations already exist. Japan has a program with the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD) in Sub-Saharan Africa that increased rice production from 14 million tons to 31 million tons between 2008 and 2018. The Japan International Cooperation Agency also works in Tanzania, Senegal, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire. Collaboration with Gulf Countries, often controversial, could also be mutually beneficial because of their access to capital. 

Following the Russian invasion, the oil-producing countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (those without major internal violent conflicts) were particularly successful at balancing food inflation with increased revenues from oil price increases. Moreover, Gulf Nations have an inevitable need to import food to feed their growing population given minimal arable land, desertification, and soil degradation, and water scarcity challenges. Additionally, Gulf nations have clearly delineated long-term strategies for food sovereignty and abundant technical-know about farm tech and climate resistance technologies.

African Nations are being encouraged to develop coherent visions and action plans for guaranteeing food sovereignty and independence. By investing in improving productivity, strengthening and streamlining local and global agricultural supply chains, and opening up to innovation and collaboration, Africa can reap its potential and create a plethora of jobs along the way. Food importing, today’s main strategy for food procurement, should become a transition strategy and a backup to guarantee resilience in times of local crisis. Africa has everything it needs to feed its populations and thrive in a more abundant and prosperous future.

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