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Opinion: Environment

Investment for Resilience in African Food Systems

Apollos Nwafor Apollos Nwafor

Dr Apollos Nwafor, AGRA’s Vice President for Policy and State Capability, outlines how food systems across Africa can better address malnutrition with increased resilience, investment and cross-sector collaboration.

Alarm bells have been chiming for a while about Africa’s dire food situation. Out of the 19 countries where the joint UN ‘Hunger Hotspots’ report projects food insecurity will worsen, 11 are in Africa. This calls for the continent to rethink its approach to tackling hunger and malnutrition.

Multiple natural and man-made shocks to agri-food systems including drought, floods, fall armyworm invasion, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have disproportionately affected the continent, driving up food prices. These shocks have primarily arisen from limited public and private financing to the continent’s agriculture sector. Government allocations remain insufficient and do not meet the 10 per cent threshold committed in 2014 under the Malabo Declaration that aimed to keep agriculture at the top of the development agenda. Even after reiterating this through the Comprehensive African Agricultural Programme (CAADP), progress has been slow, and more still needs to be done. 

Steps in the right direction 

This limited public investment has also contributed to keeping the private sector away from financing the agriculture sector, which it often considers a risky investment. Yet, significant private sector investment is required to unlock the potential of Africa’s agri-food systems and place it on a sustainable path of growth. 

At the recent Food Sovereignty Summit hosted by the Government of Senegal and the African Development Bank, multiple partners agreed to a 40 billion dollar financing plan which would increase investments for food security, with at least 35 per cent of that financing coming from the private sector. But unlocking this money requires critical reforms in the enabling environment. This must cover improving markets, enhancing policy predictability for cross-border food trade, strengthening institutions and empowering farmers with the right technologies to improve the quality of their produce.

Food systems in Africa will need to be strengthened and made more resilient in the face of future shocks. This means addressing challenges exacerbated by climate change’s effects to provide sufficient, diverse and nutritious food choices. This requires urgent action in several key areas.

Building resilience

First, Africa needs to continuously focus on building resilience in its food systems. Policymakers and other players need to assess food systems on their ability to withstand shocks and measures must be put in place for vulnerability. One area of concern is extreme weather variability due to climate change that necessitates measures to safeguard food systems, even during droughts. This means investment in irrigation to minimise dependence on rain-fed agriculture so that food can be produced year-round even when rains fail. Farmers also need improved drought-resistant and water-efficient varieties as well as insurance solutions to cushion them in times of loss.

Another vulnerability that needs to be addressed is supply chain disruptions for food and key inputs such as fertilisers. African countries need to rapidly boost their capacity to produce sufficient food and ensure that they do not rely on inputs from elsewhere in the world and can still produce sufficient food. There is also a need to diversify diets and embrace food that can be grown within the continent. When the continent grows sufficient food to feed itself, it will no longer be vulnerable to supply cuts that increase food prices. 

Actions and collaboration for resilient African food systems

All these efforts to build resilience require investment, which governments cannot provide single-handedly. Putting in place proper investment plans for agriculture with clear pathways for returns can attract private sector investment and other forms of financing from multilateral institutions, as well as technical support. This will enhance the private sector’s confidence to invest and provide financing and capabilities to farmers, trade produce and process food profitably.

As African governments work to tackle hunger and encourage investment into food systems within their jurisdictions, they must also work more closely with one another. They need to join hands in tackling hunger and keeping each other accountable. Doubling down on opportunities to strengthen intra-African trade in food and other agricultural produce such as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) can help move food from surplus areas to areas of scarcity efficiently.

Even as governments play their role amid the biting effects of climate change, food production on the continent must consider environmental impacts. Farmers need to be supported to adopt best practices in farming, such as regenerative agriculture and watershed management to better prepare for climate variabilities. Though it is a victim, food production should minimise its contribution as a culprit.

Sustained and relevant scientific research is a core part of the solution to our vulnerable food systems. Africa needs homegrown solutions led by African development organisations committed to science-based, farmer-oriented practices. Investments to build on the continent’s robust scientific and leadership base are critical, working with international partners to transform agri-food systems. This has been AGRA’s approach since 2006, mobilising 1.4 billion dollars to support the implementation of eight flagships and leveraging 800 million dollars in private sector investments. 

The continent needs more such efforts to rapidly increase food production and eliminate hunger and malnutrition.

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