Why Africa can’t feed itself

Business day Live / SAPA by Kristin Palitza

November 11 2013

SUB-Sahara Africa has ample fertile land, plenty of water and a generally favourable climate for food production. It also has some of the fastest growing economies.

Yet, the region is the world’s most food insecure — not least because its governments don’t play their part.

"The main reason for Africa’s food insecurity is lack of political will," said Nelson Agyemang, vice president of the Ghana Co-operative for Agricultural Producers, during a recent agriculture conference in Cape Town.

"We lack good leadership that understands that investing in agriculture will lead to poverty alleviation in general," he added.

Even though 70% of Africans are farmers, the continent continues to experience hunger and famine, especially in the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions.

One in four people in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, and every third child is stunted, according to a 2012 human development report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Ironically, countries that heavily rely on agriculture are worst affected by food insecurity. That is because 90% of Africa’s food supply is produced by smallholders, and they produce so little that half of them are food insecure themselves.

Today’s challenges will soon be magnified: Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, meaning the continent will need to feed an additional 1.1-billion people.

"We will face a shortage of productive land by 2050 to feed the rising population," warned Mary Munene, co-ordinator for Kenyan agricultural co-operative Land O’Lakes.

The reasons for food insecurity are complex. They include crop failure due to droughts and floods, poverty, conflict and HIV. Misguided policies and weak institutions, however, are the main culprits for hunger, experts argue.

"Chronic food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa stems from decades of poor governance," said UNDP regional director for Africa Tegegnework Gettu.

Self-serving elites are monopolising state revenues while emptying the country’s resources instead of creating jobs and building industry, according to Mr Gettu.

Many African governments continued to sideline agriculture by bestowing subsidies, incentives and macroeconomic support on other sectors.

"The cost of food production for smallholder farmers today is so high, it’s not viable as a business," confirmed Mr Munene.

As a result of such poor governance, rural infrastructure has deteriorated, farming has languished and food systems have stagnated in most sub-Saharan countries. Ninety-five percent of Africa’s agriculture continues to rely on rainfall for water.

A prime example is Zimbabwe — once Africa’s bread basket — which has been struggling with food insecurity since a highly disputed land reform in 2000 turned a successful industrialised agricultural sector into one largely based on subsistence farming.

"We have been going through difficult economic times. Dividing the small cake that is generated has been quite a challenge," said Zimbabwe’s minister of small and medium enterprise development, Sithembiso Nyoni.

Up until now, Zimbabwe’s government had made education its top development priority, Mr Nyoni explained.

Members of the African Union, including Zimbabwe, vowed in 2004 to allocate 10% of their national budgets to agriculture.

Almost 10 years later, only few have honoured the commitment.

Rwanda, for example, spends only 5% of its national budget on agriculture, despite the fact that farming accounts for 35% of its gross domestic product and employs 73% of its workforce, according to World Bank estimates.

"Our farmers have traditionally focused on subsistence agriculture, instead of practicing farming as a business. We have an infrastructure gap, lack electricity and irrigation. All these issues inhibit the sector’s growth," said Rwanda’s Trade and Industry Minister Francois Kanimba.

Rwanda plans to invest $235m dollars into rural development with a focus on agriculture in the hope of providing 40% of its farmers with access to irrigation within the next five years, said Mr Kanimba.

"We are starting from a low base. It will need quite a number of years to get where we want to be," the minister added.

While increasing investments in agriculture are key, money also needs to be spent more wisely, according to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation rural economist Denis Herbel.

"Farmers need infrastructure, but also improved human capital, through training, and social capital, through better institutions," said Mr Herbel.

"They need to gain bargaining power with governments and traders."


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