Food and sustainability

Africa’s priority: invest in agriculture to improve food sustainability

The African Development Bank (AfDB) has begun to roll out its latest major initiative, “Feed Africa”, the objective of which is straightforward: to end hunger on the continent by 2025. It intends to do this by deploying the simple logic that “investing in agriculture is the best way to end hunger”.

Agricultural development is intricately connected to food-sustainability issues. Africa has the potential to be the world’s bread basket—it has roughly 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, and a similar proportion of Africans are working in the agricultural sector. Yet the continent has some of the world’s worst nutritional outcomes. Some 25% of children are stunted, almost every country in the region suffers from micronutrient deficiencies, and Africans account for over 300m of the 795m people in the world that do not have enough food to eat.

According to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI), published in 2016 by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition, the two largest economies in Sub-Saharan Africa––Nigeria and South Africa––rank at the bottom of the index for nutritional problems. North Africa fares only slightly better, and Egypt, whose economy is comparable in size to fourth-placed Israel, ranks a lowly 20th when it comes to nutritional challenges.

Cultivating Africa’s yield 

The AfDB’s strategy to address these challenges is to focus on boosting the productivity of the agricultural sector. It takes issue with the fact that despite its wealth of arable land and growing labour force, the continent still imports two-thirds of the food it consumes. Imported food is often cheaper than the home-grown alternatives because poor rural infrastructure, outdated farming practices and undeveloped supply chains erode the productivity of food production and inflate prices. This is what the AfDB plans to reverse with the help of its Feed Africa initiative.

Running from 2016 until 2025, the initiative includes 18 action points designed to boost the agricultural sector to a level which, in the first instance, feeds the population, and second, turns Africa into a net food exporter. As part of the strategy to boost productivity and strengthen markets, specific plans include the large-scale dissemination of productivity-boosting technology, the development of enhanced seeds specific to the African setting, and the expansion of information and communications technology (ICT) platforms to support financial transactions and disseminate information.

Agri-tech advances 

Such plans have been made possible by the rapid advancement in agricultural technologies over recent years and, as techniques pioneered in developed markets are translated into the African context, case studies from across the continent deliver proof of the potential impact of technological progress. For example, the adoption of the “push-pull” system––which accommodates the mixed cropping systems traditionally used by smallholders and relies only on low-cost, locally sourced inputs––has led to a threefold increase in maize yields in parts of East Africa.

However, although investment in agri-tech can increase agricultural productivity, the AfDB acknowledges that technology alone will not fix Africa’s food security challenges. Indeed, unless farmers are integrated into food supply chains, they have no incentive to increase their output. Hence, the Feed Africa initiative also advocates public investment in rural transport infrastructure, storage facilities and agro-processing industries. Such investment could vastly improve the competitiveness of Africa’s farmers and allow smallholders to make incremental improvements to their farms’ productivity.

Drawing investment into agri-tech solutions and market structures will certainly go some way towards boosting farming productivity. This would by extension contribute to Africa’s ability to feed its growing population sustainably. But investment is no magic bullet. The experience of other developing countries teaches us that public policy is just as important as capital investment, and it is only when this investment takes place in the context of supportive governments that it can be leveraged to a level that makes a significant difference to development outcomes.

Policy needs to work 

The countries that performed best on the FSI tend to be those with positive track records of government action, but worryingly, African countries performed poorly in policy-related categories. For example, Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia are three of the bottom five countries for property-rights protection, and the bottom three in terms of policies to protect smallholders against land grabbing. This matters for food sustainability, because workers are unlikely to scale up production at their farms if they are not legally entitled to them.

There is therefore a risk that the effectiveness of the AfDB’s Feed Africa initiative––and the impact of technological advances more generally––will be thwarted by unfavourable laws, regulations, policies and institutions at a national level. Progress on addressing these issues has been mixed across the continent, with some governments making concerted efforts to develop effective supply chains for home-grown food, while others continue to shut farmers out of markets by retaining their outdated systems of land ownership. As well as drumming up investment, the AfDB should therefore ensure that its Feed Africa initiative is also a platform to lobby for policy reform.

(this article has been published first on the blog


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