With Skyrocketing Global Food Prices Agricultural Development in Africa Is An Imperative

PUBLISHED: Thu, 28 Apr 2022 12:38:45 GMT
Mary-Jean Nleya
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Photo: via FAO

The rising global food prices, compounded by Russia’s debilitating invasion of Ukraine, are yet another catalyst to spur agricultural development in Africa.

Agricultural development in Africa is critical to reach its current needs as well as the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 – particularly, ending hunger, creating jobs and growing economies; and thereby diversifying Africa’s economies from extractive mineral resources.

The ramifications of the Russia-Ukraine War, coupled with climate change and pandemic-related disruptions to agriculture in Africa, have led to the current threat to food security in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations revealed that the food price index hit a historical high in March 2022.

Given the current context, a concerted effort from governments and individuals is needed to boost agricultural productivity in Africa.

From the Cities to the Farms

Seeing the potential in agriculture, many Africans from the cities are heading back to the farms. Teresa Ndanga, a successful journalist in Malawi decided to venture into large scale farming in 2018. She said: “I am currently doing maize, groundnuts and soy beans. I also want to get into irrigation for beans”.

Malawi, a peaceful country with the moniker “the warm heart of Africa”, has an economy that is highly reliant on agriculture. The agriculture sector absorbs 80% of the country’s working population. In 2021, the Malawian economy grew to 2.4% from 0.8% in 2020. According to MwAPATA Institute, an agriculture-focused think tank in Malawi, the Russia-Ukraine War is set to cause a shock to the country’s agriculture sector due to high global fuel prices, an increase to fertilizer costs because Russia and Ukraine are major producers of chemical fertilizers.

Dependency on Food Imports and Agricultural Inputs  

As both individuals and countries brave the current situation and seek alternatives to Russia’s supply of fertilizer, Nigeria has come to the fore. Nigeria opened Africa’s largest fertilizer plant in March 2022. The newly opened fertilizer factory has an important role to play in bridging and boosting access to fertilizers for farmers on the African continent, especially in Nigeria. And its launch comes at a pertinent time for the world and Africa, in particular.

Food insecurity on the continent is exacerbated by the lingering Russia-Ukraine War. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), “90% of Russia’s $4 billion exports to Africa in 2020 was made up of wheat; and 48% of Ukraine’s near $3 billion exports to the continent was made of wheat and 31% of maize.”  

Nigeria imports US$10 billion worth of agricultural produce to make up for its food deficit. A Nigerian farmer – who in 2017 moved from the USA to Nigeria – recently made the following remarks: “I saw an opportunity in a very undeveloped sector. Agricultural products are always in demand and food based industrial products are rarely produced in Nigeria. The ability to make a significant return on investment while also making a significant contribution to society are major reasons why I am back in Nigeria”.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) is ramping up its efforts to improve food production in African countries through its African Food Crisis Response and Emergency Facility.

Digitalization for Agriculture in Africa

In Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, technology is being used to support the agriculture sector. One of Africa’s major challenges in the agriculture space is capturing data. Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) have the propensity to curb data challenges and increase agricultural productivity across the continent. The Nigerian farmer explained: “For our company, we have used ICTs to capture data at scale to reduce risk of operating in our region … We monitor fuel usage of our equipment through apps such as Hello Tractor, which also allows us to earn additional income from idle assets. Drone scouting has allowed us to visibly see our farm and areas that are underperforming or have been attacked by pests.”

ICTs represent an opportunity to make significant strides in agriculture for farmers, especially at this moment. Significant investment is required to support farmers, especially smallholder farmers’ use of ICTs because despite the efficiency of ICTs in agriculture; accessibility and affordability remain a challenge for many smallholder farmers who are not benefiting from the efficiency of ICTs.

Research by the FAO shows that smallholder farmers around the world feed one-third of the world. One of the strategies to ensure food security for Africa and the world, particularly at a time when food security hangs on the balance with soaring food prices, is sufficient investment and support with ICTs to farmers, and smallholder farmers in particular, to enable them to increase their crop yields.  

Seeing the significant potential in digitalization for agriculture in Africa, the AfDB launched the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) programme in 2018 as part of the AfDB’s “Feed Africa Strategy 2016 -2025” to increase agricultural output .

From the Farm to the Fork

Food production is but one step in the agricultural supply chain to get from farm to fork. What comes into play are sourcing requirements and the international or regional agricultural supply chains. This was demonstrated in January 2022 where despite potatoes being a key food crop in Kenya (grown by about 800,000 of small-holder farmers) KFC Kenya announced that it had a shortage of potato chips that are imported from Egypt.

On the debate regarding the sourcing of potatoes by KFC in Kenya, Dennis Nangabo, a Kenyan farmer, said support to local potato farmers by international food companies, such as KFC Kenya, would be mutually beneficial to the companies themselves and the local farmers. The mutually beneficial relationship would inadvertently benefit the country’s economy.

Also weighing in on this was Elsayed Afify, an Egyptian farmer, who said: “I remember the supply chain disruption experienced by KFC as they import potatoes from Egypt. Although the industry of farming potatoes in Egypt is huge enough to export the crop to other countries, Kenya and other countries should be considered”.

Quality standards of the local potatoes is the reason the international fast food company in Kenya does not source locally. For inclusive food value chains, it is important for local farmers to be informed of the quality control requirements of major food companies so that local farmers also have an opportunity to meet the standards and thereby grow their businesses.

Afify and his family grow grapes on their farm in Egypt that is located in Al Noubaria and distributes the grapes locally to mediators. According to him: “… The mediators take care of distributing [the grapes] to the markets and sells them to food companies in Egypt”.

Food production in Africa has significant potential – the continent has approximately 60% of the world’s arable land. Nangabo – who farms the following crops: coffee, sugarcane, maize and tomatoes – said: “I started farming [because] the availability of agricultural land made it easy to start small and grow the business”.

Increasing food production in Africa is vital and efforts by individuals in this regard is both necessary and commendable. These individual efforts require strategic support by African governments and development institutions such as the AfDB to make Africa’s potential in food production a reality.

Agricultural Development an African Imperative

A thriving agriculture sector in Africa is not only a developmental goal for the continent, it is also an imperative, chiefly at a time of skyrocketing global food prices. With Africa’s population expected to double by 2050, demand for food will also double. Agricultural development presents an opportunity to generate wealth for Africans and consequentially for African countries, but also to provide food security for the continent.

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