Africa could feed itself with the right infrastructure
Drought, COVID-19 and Russia’s war on Ukraine are fomenting a hunger crisis in Africa. The continent has enough fertile soil and water to meet its own needs, but many obstacles stand in the way.
The crisis that erupted in February 2022 was European. However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops triggered developments that hit Africa hard. The supply of grain and other agricultural products collapsed in one fell swoop, underscoring how heavily large parts of the continent still depend on imports.
“The conflict in Ukraine, but also the coronavirus pandemic, has shown how our food systems are not working for the poorest,” Sara Mbago-Bhunu, from the UN agency the International Fund, told DW. for Agricultural Development (IFAD).
According to the Tanzanian economist, the financial burden on individual households had already increased sharply due to the coronavirus pandemic. She said between 60 and 70 percent of people’s income is now spent on food. “Households of five or six need to weigh what they can afford and will likely turn to less nutritious and less expensive products,” she added. Experts agree that the system urgently needs reform. They tout an approach that would change the entire process of getting produce from the farmer to the dinner table.
Many African countries, including Zambia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have the potential to become food exporters, Mbago-Bhunu said. They could produce more than they need for their own markets simply because of their large tracts of arable land.
The area cannot really be called a ‘breadbasket’ as the conditions are not ideal for growing wheat and other common grains used to make bread. However, cereals such as millet and sorghum are grown in abundance, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. In some areas, livestock could produce meat and dairy products on a large scale.
But there would be several hurdles to overcome for that to happen. For example, it would be necessary to change widely used agricultural methods, such as slash and burn, which have depleted the soil. Water reservoirs in southern Africa should be protected urgently to allow agriculture, Mbago-Bhunu said.
It would also be necessary to exploit various existing technologies to improve yields per hectare. Other experts say local investment and knowledge transfer, for example, on drip irrigation and the use of fertilizers, are also needed.
Free trade for regional consumption
Harvesting is an additional challenge. There is a shortage of essential manpower. Young people looking for a job are increasingly attracted to cities.
In addition, products must reach the consumer. Kamassah Felix Mawuli is the manager of a Ghanaian agricultural company, which grows a wide range of crops, from tubers such as sweet potatoes, yams and cassava to tomatoes, peppers and herbs such as basil and mint. He is also the head of the Ghana Exporters Association, and although he wants to supply the region, most of his customers are in Europe because transport routes in Africa are poor, he told DW.
“If I go to Sudan from Ghana, it will take me 13 to 14 hours,” he said. “If I go to Europe, in six hours I am there. [… ] “You would be surprised to find that air freight from Ghana to other neighboring countries is more expensive than going to Europe.”
It was traders like Kamassah Felix Mawuli who advocated for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, signed a few years ago. But so far this has had little effect, and traders complain that it is not just about imposing tariffs: massive infrastructure development would be needed to prevent goods from spoil on their way to regional markets.
Kamassah Felix Mawuli hopes for more investment and support from the African Union and its member states.
Farmers and traders must join forces
Much more needs to be done to make Africa’s food production competitive, agreed Francisco Marí of the German-based non-governmental organization Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) (I found it so described in a another DW article). For example, the resilience of small farmers needs to be strengthened, he said. He said this was all the more the case, given that factors such as climatic fluctuations and extreme weather events meant that farmers were taking a major risk if they switched to large-scale cultivation.
“We would be happy if the world allowed Africa to feed itself, that the great diversity of food production could be utilized and local markets could be supplied by African producers,” Mari said. Instead, he explained, there is fierce competition from European products which are often heavily subsidized in African markets, which has led to dependency. Now, he says, the focus is on imported wheat rather than locally grown grains.
According to Marí, better energy supplies and access to innovative technologies that would allow African farmers to network with traders and gain access to food auctions are important.
Government intervention has sometimes led to quick success, said IFAD expert Sara Mbago-Bhunu. For example, in Kenya: After the government introduced high import duties on powdered milk, domestic dairy production became competitive in a very short time.
This article was adapted from German