African governments must lead food system transformation

PUBLISHED: Fri, 01 Apr 2022 11:49:52 GMT
William Asiko

Russia’s war against Ukraine is ratcheting up global prices of food and fertilizer, and the stakes for Africa are high.  Russia and Ukraine account for nearly 20 percent of the continent’s  $35 billion a year on food imports, including large volumes of basics like wheat, maize and sunflower oil. The growing risks of food price inflation, food shortages, and civil unrest underscore Africa’s untenable dependence on food imports, and the limitations of its own food systems. 

As a foreign war threatens the continent’s already tenuous food security, African governments must lead the transformation of inefficient food systems into systems that are resilient and productive, sustainable and just.  Governments can catalyze change by providing the incentives and partnerships that will transform Africa from a net food importer to a net food exporter, and creating agricultural systems that are engines of sustainable economic development.

The need is clear. Even before this crisis, many African countries confronted rising hunger. Today more than 30 percent of children aged 0 to 5 years in Africa suffer from stunting—a sign of malnutrition.  There is not enough good food for all. On the flip side, obesity and diet-related chronic diseases are rising—there is too much bad food on the market. Furthermore, the system does not deliver fair returns to smallholder farmers who account for 90 percent of food production, yet often just scrape by.

To rapidly transform African agricultural systems, the public and private sectors and philanthropy need to work together, with governments leading the way. Only governments can put in place policies and programs that incentivize profitable investments while also prioritizing healthy foods, job creation, and environmental protection.

It is true that many countries have very limited funds to significantly increase agricultural spending—especially as debt piles up in the wake of the COVID pandemic. But this makes collaboration all the more essential.  It is not only a matter of how much is invested, but also of how it is invested.  The most effective investments align private sector initiatives, philanthropic support, and government policies and programs to transform food systems.

Packaging opportunity

Governments can package opportunities that combine the expertise and capital investment of the private sector with needed public investments in transport, agricultural research, digital infrastructure, clean energy systems, and other essential elements of a fair and future-oriented food system. 

Rather than continuing with the status quo – which is expected to see food imports increase to $110 billion a year by 2025 — Africa could meet all of its food needs with goods that are locally produced, processed and manufactured.  

A number of countries, including Malawi and Rwanda, have initiated progress in this direction. For example, the government of Malawi is laying the groundwork for private-sector investments in agriculture by extending electricity to underserved rural regions. Currently, only 11-to-12% of the population has secure access to electricity, with remote agricultural areas the least covered. 

Yet, robust agricultural systems able to produce, process and market a range of healthy foods need secure energy supplies—preferably from renewable energy sources. With electricity, farmers can irrigate their fields, and entrepreneurs can invest more confidently in everything from cold storage facilities to food processing plants.

Now, the government of Malawi is working with the Rockefeller Foundation and several private sector partners to design and locate solar-powered mini-grid systems in rural areas best positioned to benefit from them.  They are considering factors such as soil quality, irrigation potential, and population density to ensure sound initial investments in energy will catalyze inclusive economic development across largely agricultural regions.

Public procurement policies offer governments another lever of change as they guide food systems transformation.  Across Africa, governments purchase foods for schools, hospitals, prisons, and safety net programs that benefit 100 million people.  Procurement policies could require a high proportion of sustainably grown fresh vegetables and fruits, and of eggs, milk, and meat to supply essential nutrients for hungry children and sick patients. 

In Rwanda, the World Food Programme switched from purchasing refined maize flour to purchasing whole-grain fortified maize meal. The change was nearly budget neutral. The government is considering that approach for the national school feeding program. This would replace empty carbohydrates with protein and healthy nutrients in school lunches, helping to address the country’s serious problem of child malnutrition.

Food system transformation requires governments to abandon a narrow focus on maintaining the status quo, and instead drive change that capitalizes on philanthropic support and inspires private investments.  Then African food security will no longer be held hostage by the exploits of foreign countries.

Africa will set its own table with its foods of choice.

William Asiko is the Managing Director for The Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa Regional Office.

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