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Opinion: Food Security & Nutrition, Gender

The State and Future of Africa’s Food Systems: A Conversation with Dr John Ulimwengu

John Ulimwengu John Ulimwengu

In light of the new Africa Agricultural Status Report (AASR) from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Dr John Ulimwengu discussed the current state of Africa’s food systems, opportunities for the future and findings of the report.  

Africa’s annual food imports are projected to increase significantly by 2025. What are the factors contributing to the perceived underperformance of Africa’s agricultural sector? 

In Africa, the use of outdated farming practices and the low adoption rate of improved agricultural technologies have contributed to low productivity.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. 

How are women and young people contributing to food security systems in Africa?

In a number of African nations, women and youth play vital, yet often overlooked, roles in ensuring food security. 

Women are often the primary caregivers in families and, in many African cultures, are predominantly responsible for growing food for household consumption. Women also make up a significant percentage of the agricultural labour force across the continent. 

Yet, they face various obstacles and economic constraints that limit their contributions to their households and communities, particularly when it comes to entrepreneurship and agribusiness. Improving small-scale women farmers’ access to productive inputs such as fertilisers can boost local agricultural production and promote resilience to food price spikes and other economic shocks. 

Additionally, many young people either take up farming or engage in agro-based entrepreneurial activities, innovating in sectors like crop production, poultry and fisheries. With growing exposure to technology and education, youth are bringing innovation to post-harvest management, introducing mechanised tools and using ICT for better storage solutions. Across the continent, there has been a surge in youth-led start-ups and businesses focused on adding value to traditional food items, enhancing their shelf life and increasing their market appeal.

Given the right resources, training and access to technology, women and youth have the potential to significantly elevate Africa’s agricultural and food security outlook.

How can innovation benefit 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 initiatives 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 these innovations, from helping to generate the evidence needed to drive change to equip farmers and other food system actors with the skills to implement these innovations. 

How can innovative investment accelerate progress in the agricultural sector?

Many African countries lack the necessary funding to transform their food systems. Innovative financing mechanisms, such as impact investing or blended finance, can mobilise private capital to fill this gap. Innovative financing can also incentivise sustainable farming practices that contribute to environmental preservation and climate change mitigation. 

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. The African Risk Capacity, a specialised agency of the African Union (AU), provides weather insurance for member states helping them manage climate risks and protect food-insecure populations. 

How can trade 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. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), for example,  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. 

How can digital technology support African agriculture and improve food security? 

Digital technologies can contribute to the development of precision agriculture, which involves using data and technology to manage agricultural inputs such as water and fertiliser more efficiently. For instance, satellite imagery and remote sensing technologies can help farmers monitor crop health, predict yields and optimise 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. 

Tell us about this year’s Africa Agricultural Status Report (AASR).

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 organisations 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. 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 regionalised 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.

What does the future hold for Africa’s 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 endeavor.

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