Ending food insecurity in Africa!

15 May 2013

By restarting the debate on food security in Africa, an issue that has been dealt with widely and in great detail, I do not wish to focus primarily on this idea. My aim is rather to connect it to some of the ongoing initiatives and processes on the continent that are trying to create the conditions necessary for sustainable African economic transformation. Food security is connected to physical and economic access to food, that is to say the idea of availability of foodstuffs on the markets and the purchasing power of the population. Not only does it relate to the fields of agriculture and agribusiness, it is also linked to all the other sectors that are more or less connected to the economy and productive areas. From this point of view, its efficiency can thus be ensured either through internal production or through the financial market by importing food products. However, the best approach is not necessarily favouring one of these options a priori. It is finding a balance between the two.

A common issue in Africa is the marginalisation of internal products, replaced by imported food products. The underlying argument for this choice is that the theory of comparative advantages supposedly predisposes African countries to produce and export staple products in order to generate currency, which would then be partly used to buy low-cost food on the global market. Not only has this strategy shown itself to be irrelevant, it has also had disastrous consequences for many countries. Indeed, it has not only weakened their internal capabilities but also heightened their vulnerability towards shocks on the internal markets. Indeed, as single export products were favoured at the expense of subsistence agriculture, confined to a secondary role, African populations became increasingly dependent on the global markets - markets for which African countries do not control the prices, the channels or the mechanisms.

Recent food crises have shown the urgent need to shift paradigms. What I mean by this is to reverse the development programmes, choices and strategies that have been "back to front" until now. The idea is to return to an orthodox development process, which is the path that almost every developed or emerging country has trod: developing internal production capacities; transforming economic structures rather than adjusting them; and organising and regulating internal markets, especially regional markets for agricultural produce, among others.

Any analysis that aims at allowing Africa to face current or future crises must take into account the fact that the causes of these crises are also connected to structural factors, not just cyclical factors. These factors are driven by trend data that will continue if the appropriate measures are not taken.

Let's focus on three of these factors. First, there is the growing population and its effects on the supply of food products. According to the well-known economist formula, when demand exceeds supply, prices increase, and vice versa. Now, global population is growing, and with it, so is demand for food products. Global population will go from seven billion in 2008 to nearly eight billion in 2025 and will almost reach nine billion in 2050. ECOWAS estimates that, based on current population growth, food production will need to be increased by 10 percent every three years in West Africa for supply to meet the growing demand inherent in population growth. However, these statistics do not take into account the population's improved living standards. Second come the effects of climate change on production, harvests and stocks of food products. Global warming has had a significant impact on both the availability and price of agricultural products.  Finally, there is the competition created by biofuels and its corollary - land-grabbing - especially for farmland.

I could certainly continue this list, but that is not the aim of this article. What I am trying to show is that, even though it is difficult for African countries to act on elements that are a consequence of choices made by others, they can make decisions that will mitigate or avoid future crises. I will not reiterate the enormous potential that the African continent holds, both in terms of agro-food and agribusiness production, which have been poorly tapped into up until now. By adopting the right policies - like those put in place by Asian countries over the past few years - African countries would not only be able to meet their food requirements, thus ensuring both food safety and food sovereignty, but would also be able to take their place in the global value chains by transforming agricultural commodities.

West Africa has started to implement its common agricultural policy, one of the elements of which is the promotion of food security and nutritional security for vulnerable populations. This programme had been implemented on the state level through national agricultural investment plans (NAIP). The instruments seem to be there. All that is needed now is a strong political vision and the desire from the states to synergise the different tools they have put in place to help them fulfil their mission of ensuring food security. The importance of intraregional trade to respond to the population's increasing food needs and to build the resilience of food systems is well known. ECOWAS' protocol on the free movement of people and its trade liberalisation scheme are still poorly applied and do not allow for the creation of an open, integrated regional market for food products.

On the continental level, the consultations carried out over the past few years have shown that African states have not yet made the most of their potential for growth and development based on the transformation of agricultural produce. A report published in March 2013 by the World Bank showed that the African states could generate up to 1,000 billion dollars by 2030 through the transformation of agro-food products.

In their economic report on Africa 2013, the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and the African Union (AU) recently showed that, by carrying out structural transformations and creating value, African countries could make the necessary changes that would not only allow them to solve their internal food problems but also to gain important shares in international value chains. The ECA specifically showed that transforming agricultural commodities held huge potential in terms of added value and commercial exploitation. Two directions are recommended in order to reach this objective: (i) massively investing in agricultural production and modernising infrastructure, especially in rural areas, and (ii) broadening the national and regional markets for inputs. This option would allow them to make economies of scale by establishing backward linkages related to the local production of inputs such as fertilizer, light equipment and spare parts, maintenance and repairs, etc. as well as specialised service providers such as certifying bodies, laboratories and business support providers, among others.
Author: Cheikh Tidiane Dieye is the executive director of the African Centre for Trade, Integration and Developmen in Dakar, Senegal.

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