The Outlook of Food Security in Africa

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

The agriculture sector is a major component of Africa’s economy. Looking at the numbers, FAO estimates that, on average, agriculture contributes 15% of the total GDP. According to IMF, the agricultural sector is responsible of employing more than half of the total labor force in sub-Saharan Africa and within the rural settlements. Its still the biggest source of foreign exchange, and accounts for about 40 pc of the continent’s hard currency earnings. The agriculture sector is also still the dominant provider of industrial raw materials with two-thirds of manufacturing value-added in most African countries being based on agricultural raw materials. This is only the tip of the iceberg of the enormous value of the agricultural sector in African economy.

However much we continue to rely on agriculture for economic development, food insecurity still remains a major hurdle in sub-Saharan Africa. FAO categorizes food insecurity in two factors: Severe food insecurity, where an individual or household has typically run out of food and, at worst, gone for a day (or days) without eating; and Moderate food insecurity, where an individual or household faces uncertainty about their ability to obtain food, and have been forced to compromise on the quality and/or quantity of food they consume. According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020 Survey conducted by FAO, the prevalence of severe food insecurity in Africa stood at 19 percent whereas the prevalence of moderate food insecurity stood at 52 percent in 2019. Data as shown below presents a bleak future for Africa and an urgent need to address the underlying concerns and steer the economy towards achieving zero hunger by 2030.

Data from the FAO showing food insecurity prevalence rates in Africa vs other parts of the world, and in sub-Saharan Africa- Source: FAO

There are several factors that continue to extent the magnitude of the food insecurity crisis in Africa. Currently, the world is reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that has further exacerbated the crisis by disrupting global and local food supply chains. The lockdown restrictions that have been imposed in various countries has impacted the movement of agricultural resources, including: labor, pesticides and equipment. Other than the pandemic situation, poverty is also still in play. For most people, poverty is almost synonymous with hunger. It is estimated that close to 60 percent of the African population live below $2 a day. Due to this, many are unable to meet their basic needs.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

A significant portion of people living below $2 a day is made up of small-scale farmers. Small scale farming accounts for roughly 75 percent of the total agriculture output in most African economies. Small-scale farming would be mainly characterized as subsistence. However, due to the evolution of the food systems, most farms in Africa today have morphed into monoculture (cultivation of one type of crop) farms. This has led to the rise of cash crop farming in most of these small-scale farms. While the major prospect of cash crop farming is to earn profits to farmers from selling their produce, it has actually done more harm than good to small scale farmers.

There should be no illusion of quick fixes or miracle paths towards responding to these problems. The agriculture sector will need to address these challenges. If the wider objective of alleviating rural poverty and food insecurity is to be realized, practical actions must be taken to ensure that small scale farmers receive the full package of support they need to benefit from agriculture. The first step to take would be to promote price subsidies on farm inputs. The quantity and quality of farm inputs are key factors that would determine the quantity and quality of produce during harvest. Governments should be able to supply small-scale farmers with inputs such as hybrid seeds and fertilizers at subsidized prices. This supply should be at least be readily available at all times so that immediately after harvest, farmers would be able to purchase them from the proceeds of the harvest and have them ready for the next season. Research shows that for $1 paid in fertilizer, the average farmer would reap $1.70 worth of extra maize (approximately 70% increase). This would go a long way in enhancing food security in those communities while also uplifting their lives out of poverty.

Another area of concern is the lack of a financial infrastructure to support small-scale farmers. Many African economies are receiving global recognition due to their innovations and entrepreneurship activities in the fintech space. However, for most of these organizations, the Achilles heel remains the inability to cap into the small-scale farmers livelihoods and raise them out of poverty. The private sector should look into ways to find practical solutions to mitigate the risk that small-scale farmers are exposed to and provide credit and capital at affordable rates. It is quite clear that most of the small-scale farmers do not yet feel very comfortable with what the market is willing to offer, plus they bear unacceptable levels of risk. However, a possible way would be to bundle these financial products to farm inputs such that once a farmer purchases a fertilizer for instance, he/she is eligible to receive support from these financial products. For instance, in Ghana, farmers were offered weather insurance, where a large subsidy of the premium was paid by the government. Almost all farmers who were offered the product took it and were more likely to use fertilizer on their crops and reap more than those who didn’t.

All of these interventions would require investments, dedication and commitment. African governments would need to be quite intentional about this if we are to achieve zero hunger goal by the year 2030. There is a famous proverb that goes like this: ‘Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. But teach him the philosophy behind fishing and he will learn not only to fish, but to hunt and to farm as well.’ The time is now!