Madagascar is on the brink of the world’s first “climate change famine”, the UN has warned. The worst drought in 40 years has pushed more than a million people in the country to the verge of starvation. In Ethiopia too, UN officials warned in July 2021 that more than 400,000 people face famine following the conflict in Tigray.
These are epitomes of an underlying trend: food insecurity in Africa is on the rise. Climate change, conflict and Covid-19 are fueling a rise in hunger and slowing – or reversing – much of the progress that had already been made in reducing all forms of malnutrition. Other structural changes such as population growth, rapid urbanisation and deepening globalisation are further exacerbating stresses in delivering adequate food and nutrition to Africa’s populations.
Without serious action, the food security, health and lives of millions of Africans are in jeopardy. In this context, the UN Food Systems Summit is a critical moment to re-align efforts to address food insecurity in Africa. It is now time to set out a strategy that improves nutrition outcomes, livelihoods and reduces the impact on the environment simultaneously. This will require evidence-based and guided experimentation, policy innovations, and innovative technical solutions, as well as commitment from the highest levels of government. A systems approach and integrated thinking are key.
Over the last year, the African Union Commission has engaged in a broad process with its member states, regional economic communities and various independent dialogues to develop an Africa Common Position on food systems transformation. The outcome, “The Africa Common Position to the UN Food Systems Summit 2021” provides not only an overview of the drivers, opportunities, challenges and threats to food systems transformation, it also presents an elaborate collation of game-changing solutions that the continent believes will sustainably transform its food systems.
The solutions also align with each of the five Action Tracks of the UNFSS and provide pathways to attaining the goals of the AU’s Agenda 2063, the CAADP goals and targets as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. Implementing these game-changing solutions will require a vibrant policy and institutional framework in each country.
Policy and institutional innovations
Food and agriculture policies on the African continent have evolved less rapidly than the structural changes within food systems, resulting in rising malnutrition, ecosystem degradation and slowing rural growth and development. Policymakers will be required to forge new pathways to build sustainable, resilient, and prosperous food systems that deliver healthy and nutritious diets, improve livelihoods, and protect the environment.
A recent report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel has shown that some African countries have—despite significant pressures—fared better than others in managing their food security and nutrition outcomes, as demonstrated in their performance against key CAADP indicators.
Key lessons can be drawn from their experience and from the visionary approach they have taken to food systems transformation. Although not explicitly, countries like Ghana, Malawi, and Rwanda are already adopting a holistic and integrated approach to their food systems.
These countries have shown that policy approaches to deal with the inherent complexity of food systems are more likely to be effective if they are not compartmentalised. Our analysis has shown that multistakeholder and multisectoral coordination across government departments, in particular, ensures that the interconnectedness of food systems transformation is correctly reflected in the way that it is governed. African countries that have shown a measure of success in transforming aspects of their food systems show that well-coordinated national-level policies can facilitate success.
In Ghana for example, national policies and programs are designed by cross-sectoral planning groups composed of representatives from various agencies, relevant ministries, private sector organizations, and technical experts. Supported by a strong and collaborative institutional framework, the government ensures inclusivity and support to all actors in the effective delivery of interventions.
Similarly, in Malawi recent institutional, policy and programmatic interventions demonstrate a comprehensive approach to transforming its food systems. Malawi’s policymakers chose to develop solutions that fit within their own context and have opted to do so inclusively through carefully designed stakeholder consultation programs. In addition, dedicated nutrition polices, overseen at the highest levels of government, have also contributed to a marked improvement in the health and well-being of Malawians.
Implementation and measuring success
To consolidate the progress made to-date and to elevate the continent’s food systems further, Africa must leverage existing structures and frameworks to drive sustainable food systems transformation. Critical for this are Africa’s mutual accountability country processes, including the CAADP biennial reviews and the agriculture joint sector reviews.
In addition, policymakers now have an opportunity to lead a continent-wide strengthening of the CAADP process. While CAADP has focused national efforts in transforming agricultural sectors, it is now time to adopt a more systemic view of food systems transformation and to go beyond the CAADP’s current ambition of agricultural growth and transformation.
Additional indicators are needed which better measure and reflect food systems’ interconnectedness with the environment, social inclusion, nutrition and public health, youth employment, and income generation. Within this context, the development of the Second Ten Year Implementation Plan of the AU Agenda 2063 is an opportune moment to consider Africa’s food system transformation goals.
The work has just begun on implementing a sustainable food systems transformation across the continent. Re-thinking and re-aligning policies in a way that leverage the synergies and turn the trade-offs of food systems transformation into win-win situations must be a priority in the months and years following the UNFSS.