Africa’s annual food import bill more than tripled from $15 billion during the food crisis of 2008 to about $55 billion amid the current one, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Agriculture sector experts hold that this trend should be reversed, as the situation is costing jobs and livelihoods to the continent’s citizens. The African Development Bank (AfDB) also projected that the continent’s food import bill was anticipated to rise to $110 billion within the next three years – by 2025 – if the status quo is not changed. During the 12th African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) Summit which concluded in Kigali on September 9, “Heads of state stressed the need to boost Africa’s food production to reduce the need for imports and be better able to withstand shocks, and to increase public expenditure,” according to a resulting declaration. According to the declaration, this year’s AGRF, taking place as the continent continues to feel the shocks of successive crises, amplified participants’ understanding of the vulnerability of Africa’s food systems, and that the Covid-19 pandemic placed extraordinary strain on its countries. Also, the Russia-Ukraine war has disrupted commodity supply chains, and contributed to the increase in food prices for the continent’s population, which is bearing the brunt of the rising cost of living. “Our food systems are fragile. The price of food has risen by more than 40% since the beginning of Covid-19, and 147 million people are facing crisis levels of food insecurity – an increase of 20 million since the beginning of 2022,” the declaration reads in part. Gerardine Mukeshimana, Rwanda’s Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources, said that the current “crisis affected everyone, and this should be a wakeup call”. “Discussing food systems and the area of crisis, just provides a sense of urgency,” she said, suggesting that tangible actions are needed to accelerate the food systems transformation that the continent wants to achieve. She said that this includes farm productivity growth, reducing post-harvest losses, and linking farmers to the market. Despite its vast agricultural potential, Africa is a net importer of agricultural products, and increasingly so, according to the Framework for Boosting Intra-African Trade in Agricultural Commodities and Services, published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) and the African Union Commission in 2021. The increase in agricultural and food imports has been particularly striking for basic foodstuffs such as cereals, vegetable oils, sugar, meat and dairy products, it revealed. Agnes Kalibata, President of AGRA, argued that the continent can produce the food it needs, but fails to do so because of inadequate interventions made to its food systems. “We actually have the ability to produce the food we want. Whether it is wheat, there are 14 countries from this continent that produce wheat. We need 55 million metric tonnes, we are only able to produce 25 million metric tonnes,” she said. “That wheat [30 million tonne gap] can be produced [in Africa] mostly because those [countries] that are producing wheat, are producing 1.2 metric tonnes per hectare, but when you go to some of the countries which are doing irrigation and having good varieties, they are doing 5.4 metric tonnes per hectare,” she observed. Sourcing food from other parts of the world, she said, implies that its available market opportunities were not benefiting its farmers, and job creation. “In 2008 when we had a food crisis, the number (Africa’s food import bill) was $15 billion, today it is about $55 billion,” she said. While an estimated 10 to 12 million youth enter the workforce each year, only 3.1 million jobs are created, leaving a vast number of youth unemployed, according to data from AfDB. Fixing food production gaps For the continent to be able to meet its food needs, Kalibata underscored the need to increase yields through quality seeds and fertilisers, as well as access to markets. The billions used for importing food mean that the funds that would support the continent’s agri-food industry are being diverted elsewhere. Joseph Gafaranga, Secretary General of Imbaraga Farmers Organisation, told The New Times that Africa’s reliance on food imports suggests that the continent’s agriculture has not yet developed. Citing some of the problems faced with farmers, he said they include lack of access to finance to be able to get the required farm inputs such as quality seeds, fertilisers and technologies such as to be able to tackle climate change effects like drought and floods, which ruin farm productivity. “Africa largely depends on rain-fed farming. When there is a lack of rain, our food production declines,” he said, adding that farm yields also lower in case of too much rain, which indicates how its food systems are weak.” In May this year, AfDB launched a $1.5 billion African Emergency Food Production Facility with a view to help African countries avert a looming food crisis. It indicated that, with the disruption of food supplies arising from the Russia-Ukraine war, Africa faces a shortage of at least 30 million tonnes of food, especially wheat, maize, and soybeans that were being imported from both countries. The Facility is expected to provide 20 million African smallholder farmers with quality seeds, increase access to fertilisers and enable them to rapidly produce 38 million tonnes of food. This, it said, would be a $12 billion increase in food production in just two years. Such an example helps to explain how the estimated $55 billion the continent uses to import food annually, could help fund the growth of its agriculture sector.