Assessing the present and shaping the future of Africa’s food systems

  • 25 Sep 2023
  • 8 Mins Read
  • 〜 by Dr. John M. Ulimwengu

A conversation with Dr. John M. Ulimwengu, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute’s (IFPRI) Development Strategies and Governance Unit.  

Dr Ulimwengu is currently working on mapping food systems in selected African countries. His research interests include poverty dynamics, agricultural productivity, and rural development. Since 2007, he has been involved in strategic research on the transformation of food systems in Africa under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) agenda and has served as the Africa-wide coordinator of the Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System (ReSAKSS).

Dr Ulimwengu has co-developed an interactive spatial typology for food and nutrition security being used in several countries. He holds a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics, a Master in Economics degree from Ohio State University, and a Master in Development Economics degree from Williams College, Massachusetts.

Tell us about the Africa Agricultural Status Report (AASR) and what we should expect from this year’s report.

AASR is an annual publication that provides a comprehensive analysis of the agricultural sector in Africa, including data, trends, challenges, and opportunities. It aims to inform policymakers, researchers, development organizations, and other stakeholders about the current state of agriculture in Africa and offers insights into ways to promote sustainable agricultural development on the continent. This year’s report was launched at the Africa Food Systems Forum 2023 in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 5 September 2023. The 2023 AASR sheds light on drivers of food system transformation that play a critical role in the effectiveness and sustainability of African food systems. The objectives of this year’s report include: 

  1. Assess the current state of affairs: Provide a comprehensive overview of Africa’s current food systems, including the status of food systems transformation efforts in selected African countries, showing where the gaps are and highlighting areas that require further action. 
  2. Identify challenges and opportunities: Identify the key challenges facing African food systems, including climate change and other shocks and stressors. The report also highlights the potential of digital technology innovative financing and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to significantly transform food systems in Africa. 
  3. Evaluate existing policies and initiatives: The report proposes specific strategies for empowering African food systems. These strategies will be evidence-based and tailored to the unique challenges and opportunities of different subregions and countries in Africa. 
  4. Africa’s demographic dividend: How can the process of food systems transformation involve more youth and women? 
  5. Knowledge and innovation: The report makes recommendations for the development of future knowledge and innovation. 
  6. Environment-nutrition trade-offs: The report demonstrates the current environmental-nutrition trade-offs of regionalized African food supplies and consumption and examines the variation in food supply, consumption, and compliance with food-based dietary guidelines in Africa, as well as the environmental impact variation associated with food supply in Africa.

Projections by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) indicate that Africa’s annual food imports will increase significantly from USD 15 billion in 2018 to USD 110 billion by 2025. What are the factors contributing to the perceived failure or underperformance of Africa’s agricultural sector that leads to a dismal food and nutrition security outlook? 

In Africa, the use of outdated farming practices and the low adoption rate of improved agricultural technologies have contributed to low productivity. Issues such as monocultures, lack of crop rotation, and poor soil management are still prevalent across the continent. Poor infrastructure in terms of roads, storage, and processing facilities limits access to markets and increases post-harvest losses. Moreover, many African farmers and other food systems-related businesses lack access to finance and credit facilities that would enable them to invest in improved agricultural technologies and inputs. However, it is important to note that the situation varies widely across countries and regions. Numerous challenges and external impacts, including extreme weather events and climate change, recurrent outbreaks of pests and diseases, limited availability and low adoption of yield-increasing technologies have put African food systems in a critical situation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of the greatest public health threats of our time. How did this affect food security in Africa? 

Food availability is a critical component of food security, and its disruption can contribute significantly to the failure of food systems. The COVID-19 pandemic-induced recession has greatly impacted people’s ability to afford food, particularly in low-income communities. In 2021, the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an estimated 30 million people into extreme poverty. This means that Africa will fail to attain SDG 1 on ending extreme poverty by 2030, which will exacerbate the hunger challenge. The United Nations (2022) Africa Sustainable Development Report notes that poverty rates remain high in Africa, that at least 492 million people will be left in extreme poverty by 2030, and at least 350 million people by 2050 under prevailing trends. These high-level statistics and trends are alarming. They not only evoke a sense of urgency for Africa to transform its food systems but, more so, point to a need for a deeper understanding of the status quo. As the continent looks towards the implementation of transformative interventions, the fundamental question is where countries stand in relation to the drivers of food system transformation. It is in this spirit that the UN hosted the 2023 UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment in July 2023 to review commitments to action made at the 2021 Food Systems Summit. The rebuilding of economies after the COVID-19 pandemic and conflicts offers a unique opportunity to transform African food systems and make them resilient to future shocks while ensuring environmental sustainability and healthy nutrition for all. To make this happen, major shifts are required at various scales, including changes in policies, practices, institutions, structures, innovations, and processes to build much-needed resilience to current and future shocks.

How has the Russia-Ukraine crisis disrupted food markets in Africa? 

The Russia-Ukraine war has disrupted global energy and food markets, resulting in a surge in prices of agricultural inputs, energy, and food. Russia and Belarus export approximately 20 percent of the world’s nitrogen fertilizers and 40 percent of the world’s exported potassium, respectively. Russia and Belarus produce more than a third of global potash. The heavy sanctions imposed on both countries have reduced the accessibility of potash in the world market. The impact of these disruptions in the global supply chain of agricultural inputs (i.e., fertilizer) has been greatly felt by sub-Saharan African countries that source some of their fertilizer supplies from Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Furthermore, this impact is exacerbated by multiple climate shocks and the lethargic macroeconomic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Africa must seek opportunities in the current crises to reduce its dependence on food imports by enhancing the resilience of its food systems.

Regarding women and youth, what is their contribution to food security systems in Africa?

Women are key to agricultural transformation, but various obstacles and economic constraints limit their contributions to their households and communities. They face several challenges that undermine their engagement in food security systems, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship and agribusiness. There is a need to improve small-scale women farmers’ access to productive inputs such as fertilizers. Doing so can boost local agricultural production and promote resilience to food price spikes and other economic shocks. 

How can African countries fund the agricultural sector in order to transform their food systems?

Many African countries lack the necessary funding to transform their food systems. Innovative financing mechanisms such as impact investing or blended finance can mobilize private capital to fill this gap. For example, the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) “Feed Africa” strategy aims to attract USD 1 billion in investment to modernize Africa’s agriculture sector. Innovative financing can incentivize sustainable farming practices that contribute to environmental preservation and climate change mitigation. For instance, green bonds and climate-smart loans can fund projects that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or help farmers adapt to climate change. The Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility, for example, issues green bonds to finance sustainable agriculture and renewable energy projects in developing countries. Innovative financing can also help manage the risks associated with agricultural activities. For instance, weather-index insurance products can protect smallholder farmers against climate-related risks. The African Risk Capacity, a specialized agency of the African Union (AU), provides weather insurance for member states helping them manage climate risks and protect food-insecure populations. In some cases, innovative financing may be a source of seed capital for agrifood start-ups fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. 

Innovation and knowledge play crucial roles in transforming food systems. How is investing in innovations key to transforming African food systems? 

Innovation can take many forms in food systems, be they technological, social, institutional, or policy-related. Technological innovations are often the most visible, with new technologies such as precision agriculture, vertical farming, and alternative proteins offering potential solutions to enhance productivity, improve sustainability, and reduce environmental impacts. Policy innovations such as effective climate policies or investment in public goods such as agricultural research can foster an enabling environment for sustainable food system transformation. Knowledge, particularly in the form of research and education, underpins many of the aforementioned innovations. Research helps generate the evidence needed to drive technological, social, and policy innovation, while education equips farmers and other food system actors with the skills to implement these innovations. Evidence generated through research is critical for driving the adoption of sustainable farming practices. 

How can trade, particularly features of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) play a significant role in empowering African farmers to develop sustainable food systems? 

Trade can stimulate the production of a more diverse range of crops, which can lead to improved nutrition and food security. Diversifying food production can reduce dependence on a single crop and make food systems more resilient to shocks such as drought or disease. Trade can stimulate economic growth by enabling farmers to sell their products in wider markets, both within and beyond national borders. This can lead to increased income for farmers, which can be reinvested in farming practices to increase productivity. Trade can also improve food security by allowing countries to import food when local supplies are insufficient or too expensive. In this way, trade can help to stabilize food prices and ensure that people have access to the food they need. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is one of the largest free trade areas in the world, with several participating countries, and has the potential to significantly transform food systems in Africa in various ways, because it creates a single continental market for goods and services with free movement of persons and investments. 

Africa is expected to experience a significant demographic dividend, as the continent has the youngest population globally. How can this demographic dividend contribute to food system transformation in the continent? 

The increased youth population can be involved in various stages of food value chains, including production, processing, distribution, and marketing. This can increase food availability, access, and affordability. Harnessing this demographic dividend can lead to increased productivity in agriculture and the transformation of food systems. The younger population tends to be more adaptive and innovative. This demographic can utilize, adapt, and innovate agricultural technology that improves farming practices, reduces post-harvest losses, and enhances market access. A younger population can also influence policies related to food systems through advocacy and leadership. They can push for policies that ensure food security and promote climate-smart agriculture and sustainable practices. Finally, investment in education for the young population can result in an improved understanding of sustainable farming practices, nutrition, and food systems, leading to the long-term transformation of the way food is produced, processed, and consumed.

How can digital technology be used to transform African food systems and improve food security across the continent? 

Digital technologies can contribute to the development of precision agriculture, which involves using data and technology to manage agricultural inputs such as water and fertilizer more efficiently. For instance, satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies can help farmers monitor crop health, predict yields, and optimize irrigation. Mobile technologies can provide farmers with access to real-time market information such as prices, demand, and supply trends. This can help farmers make informed decisions about what to plant and when to sell, potentially increasing their incomes. Digital technologies can improve the traceability and efficiency of food supply chains. For instance, blockchain technology can provide a secure and transparent record of transactions, thus helping to prevent fraud and improve the quality and safety of food. Digital technologies can support climate-smart agriculture by providing farmers with information about weather patterns and climate risks. This can help farmers adapt their practices to changing climatic conditions. 

How is the climate-smart agriculture approach transforming and reorienting agricultural systems to support food security under the new realities of climate change?  

Climate-smart agriculture (CSA) practices are designed to enhance resilience, increase productivity, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Implementing CSA in Africa is crucial due to the continent’s vulnerability to climate change and its dependence on agriculture. Several countries have initiated CSA programs such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, weather-based insurance schemes, improved water management, and irrigation. This multi-faceted approach offers farmers the opportunity to achieve food security and ensures that they are more prepared to handle the current and future effects of climate change. 

In conclusion, what does the future hold for African food systems? 

Africa has the potential to not only ensure food security for its people but also play a crucial role in the global food system. However, the continent is still grappling with myriad challenges from climate change and infrastructural gaps to inadequate policies, which require proactive and innovative solutions. The transformation of African food systems is not only a matter of urgency, but also an incredible opportunity to uplift millions from poverty, improve nutrition, and drive inclusive and sustainable economic growth. The journey ahead will require collective effort, innovative thinking, and sustained commitment. The rewards – a prosperous, food-secure, and sustainable Africa – are well worth the endeavour.