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How Africa can move from net food importer to exporter

AfDB says that modern agriculture, driven by technologies such as drought resilience, crop protection and yield enhancement, can also contribute substantially to employment and wealth creation as well as to the improvement of health and nutrition on the continent. As such, agriculture will build the cornerstone of Africa’s economic transformation.
A solar-powered irrigation system in Nasho, Eastern Province. The project was developed to modernise Rwanda’s agriculture sector and specifically improve smallholder farmers’ livelihoods. / Photo: Sam Ngendahimana

Africa remains a net food importer, meaning that it imports more foods than it exports. And, increased food demand and changing consumption habits are leading to Africa’s rapidly rising food import bill.

This is one of the issues that were talked about in a virtual session during the 2020 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF 2020) Summit that was co-hosted virtually by Rwanda last week (from September 8 to September 11, 2020).

 

The African Development Bank (AfDB) estimated that in 2017, Africa spent $64.5 billion on importing foods, and the food import bill is projected to increase to over $110 billion by 2025, if the status quo remains. This, according to the Bank, is unsustainable, irresponsible, and unaffordable.

 

Africa’s exports of food and agricultural products are worth between $35 billion and $40 billion a year, according to McKinsey & Company – a US-based management consulting firm.

 

Producing more and adding value to farm produce

AfDB said that Africa’s food imports include wheat, sugar, rice, beef, and soybeans, yet, these commodities can be produced on the continent.

By continuing to pay for food to be imported, the Bank said that Africa is losing precious foreign exchange, so it must quickly eliminate the negative balance, and start to sow, grow, process, consume, and ultimately to export the food itself.

It added that export of primary agricultural production is still very high in Africa compared to other regions of the world.

Therefore, it said, agriculture offers a realistic prospect for large-scale job creation, especially in fragile economies, if agricultural produce gets added value before export.

Given the importance of food and nutrition, promoting agricultural value chains and improving market access have the potential to diversify economies, raise incomes, increase food security and macroeconomic stability, contribute to mitigating conflict and prevent internal and external migration.

Easing and boosting intra-Africa food trade

A World Bank report – Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing barriers to regional trade in food staples – which was released in 2012 indicated that Africa’s farmers can potentially grow enough food to feed the continent and avert future food crises if countries remove cross-border restrictions on the food trade within the region.

The World Bank pointed out that the continent would also generate an extra $20 billion in yearly earnings if African leaders can agree to dismantle trade barriers that blunt more regional dynamism.

The Bank’s report also pointed out that rapid urbanisation will challenge the ability of farmers to ship their cereals and other foods to consumers when the nearest trade market is just across a national border.

Speaking at a virtual session during the AGRF 2020 Summit, Moussa Faki Mahamat, Chairperson of the African Union Commission said that with Covid-19 has underscored the need to boost food trade within thecontinent such as through the African Continental Free Trade Area.

“As much as we were worried about the health plan [to deal with Covid-19 pandemic], we were also worried about the food plan, because many countries were expecting to get rice shipments from Asia,” he said.

“Sometimes [in Africa], there are countries that have a surplus, while there are others that have a deficit in the same region. Lack of infrastructure, unaccustomed to trade among themselves, they end up importing [foods] like rice from Asia, yet they can buy such commodities from neighboring countries,” he said.

“So there are dysfunctions in our business, in the way we act. ... This is something that is absolutely urgent,” he said, pointing out that Africa should increase food trade between its countries.

However, he called for more investment into and modernisation of the agriculture sector in Africa.

Speaking at the same Summit, President Paul Kagame said that “the only reason that Africa can continue to import large amounts of its food from outside the continent, is that it simply has not been a priority to add value to our own products and do more business with each other.”

Prioritising agriculture, lowering production cost

The recommendations of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) which urges every African country to invest at least 10 percent of their public expenditure into agriculture, has largely not been implemented.

The fact that some agricultural commodities imported overseas – such as wheat from Russia and Canada – reach Africa and are sold at lower prices than those produced on the continent is somehow paradoxical.

What happens is that Africa food producers have difficulties competing on the market as their edible products are more expensive than imported ones.

This would not be the case if Africa invested enough money or subsidised food production to make it more affordable, as it would help the continent to lower the cost of production.

“No region has built a modern economy without first strengthening the agriculture sector. This is true of both in ancient economies, and in modern times,” said Hailemariam Desalegn, the Board Chair of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

Scaling up technology use in agriculture

AfDB says that modern agriculture, driven by technologies such as drought resilience, crop protection and yield enhancement, can also contribute substantially to employment and wealth creation as well as to the improvement of health and nutrition on the continent. As such, agriculture will build the cornerstone of Africa’s economic transformation.

As a result, technology-driven agriculture will help to leverage the potential of the continent’s youthful population.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over 60 percent of Africa’s estimated 1.2 billion people are under the age of 25. Yet, with little job creation currently in the rural areas where the majority of the population resides, there is a growing uncertainty over the continent’s preparedness to tap this resource.

Therefore, there is a need to engage the youth into the agriculture sector from farm production to agribusiness such as agro-processing through helping them to easily access technologies and financing.

entirenganya@newtimesrwanda.com

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