By Philipp Sandner
Drought, COVID-19 and the Russian war against Ukraine are fomenting a hunger crisis in Africa. The continent has enough fertile soil and water to meet its own needs, but there are many hurdles preventing this.
The crisis that erupted in February 2022 was European. However, the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops set in motion developments that have hit Africa hard. The supply of grain and other agricultural products collapsed in one fell swoop, highlighting how dependent large parts of the continent still are on imports.
“The Ukraine conflict, but also the coronavirus pandemic, have shown how our food systems are not working for the poorest,” Sara Mbago-Bhunu, of the United Nations agency International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), told DW.
According to the Tanzanian economist, the financial burden on individual households had already risen sharply as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. She said that between 60 and 70% of people’s income was now spent on food. “Households of five or six have to weigh what they can afford and will probably turn to less nutritious products that are cheaper,” she added. Experts agree that the system needs to be reformed urgently. They tout an approach that would change the whole process of getting produce from the farmer to the dinner table.
Many African countries, including Zambia, Malawi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have the potential to become food exporters, said Mbago-Bhunu. They could produce more than they need for their own markets simply because of their large swaths of arable land.
One cannot really say that the region is a “breadbasket” because conditions are not ideal for growing wheat and other common cereals used to make bread. However, cereals such as millet and sorghum ARE grown in abundance, as well as a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. In some areas, livestock farming could produce meat and dairy products on a large scale.
But there would be several hurdles to overcome for this to happen. For example, it would be necessary to change much-used farming methods, such as slash-and-burn, which have depleted the soil. Water reservoirs in southern Africa would urgently need to be protected to enable agriculture, said Mbago-Bhunu.
It would also be necessary to exploit various existing technologies to improve yields per hectare. Other experts say that local investment and knowledge transfer, for instance, on drip irrigation and the use of fertilizers, are also needed.
Free trade for regional consumption
Harvesting represents a further challenge. There is a shortage of much-needed labor. Young people in search of work are increasingly drawn to cities.
Furthermore, products must reach the consumer. Kamassah Felix Mawuli is the director of a Ghanaian agricultural company, which grows a wide range of products, from tubers such as sweet potatoes, yams, and cassava to tomatoes, peppers, and herbs such as basil and mint. He is also the head of the Association of Ghanaian Exporters, and though he would like to supply the region, most of his customers are in Europe because transport routes within Africa are poor, he told DW.
“If I’m going to Sudan from Ghana, it will take me 13 to 14 hours,” he said. “If I’m going to Europe, in six hours I’m there. [… ] “You would be surprised to find that airfreight from Ghana to other neighboring countries is more expensive than going to Europe.”
It was traders like Kamassah Felix Mawuli who advocated for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which was signed a few years ago. But so far, it has had little effect, and traders complain that it is not only a matter of imposing tariffs: Massive infrastructure development would be needed to prevent goods from spoiling on their way to regional markets.
Kamassah Felix Mawuli is hoping for investment and more support from the African Union and its member states.
Farmers and traders must join forces
Much more needs to be done to make Africa’s food production competitive, agreed Francisco Marí from the Germany-based non-governmental organization Brot für die Welt (Bread for the World) (I found it described thus in a different DW article.) For example, the resilience of small farmers must be strengthened, he said. He said that this was all the more the case, given that factors such as climate fluctuations and extreme weather events meant farmers were taking a major risk if they moved to large-scale cultivation.
“We would be happy if the world would allow Africa to feed itself, that the great diversity of food production could be used, and that local markets could be supplied by African producers,” Mari said. Instead, he explained, there is fierce competition from European products that are often heavily subsidized in African markets, which has led to dependency. Now, he said, the focus lies on imported wheat instead of locally grown grains.
According to Marí, better energy supplies and access to innovative technologies that would allow African farmers to network with traders and gain access to food auctions are important.
Government intervention has sometimes led to quick success, said IFAD expert Sara Mbago-Bhunu. For instance, in Kenya: After the government introduced high import duties on powdered milk, national milk production became competitive in a very short time.