H.E. Hailemariam Dessalegn, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister and current AGRA Board Chair, envisions Africa transitioning from a staple crop net importer to a net exporter within five years.
“In the next five years, Africa should transition from being a net importer to a net exporter of staple crops like wheat, rice, and edible oil seeds,” he stated at the Africa Food System Forum, which took place in Tanzania from the 5th to the 8th of 2023. He observed that recent geopolitical events have underscored Africa’s vulnerabilities in the food sector.
He emphasized that the forum aimed not just to ensure food security on the continent but also to catalyze the continent’s pursuit of food sovereignty.
Hon. Dessalegn, reflecting on Africa’s dependencies, pointedly remarked, “We were significantly exposed by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Few realized how heavily Africa relied on these two nations for food imports.” The dispute between Ukraine and Russia deeply affected Africa’s food supply chain, especially when Russia didn’t renew the Black Sea grain agreement.
He expressed his dismay by noting, “It’s a paradox that while we possess 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, we depend heavily on a handful of nations for food imports.”
The crisis, apart from revealing challenges, also served as a wake-up call for the continent. Africa’s vast potential remains untapped, with a renewed focus now placed not only on food security but also on achieving food sovereignty.
Emphasizing the gravity of the situation, the Chair remarked, ” Our systems, which sustain our populations and economies, stand at a critical juncture.” The implications of climate change are increasingly evident and threaten the very existence of the planet and its people. Recognizing this, the Chair stressed the moral and ethical duty of leaders to act decisively.
The AGRA Board Chair also shared a thought-provoking South African proverb, which states, “It is not the ‘what,’ but the ‘how’ that will make or break you.” Reflecting on his experiences in Ethiopia, he highlighted three fundamental pillars: political commitment, putting people and communities at the center of agricultural and food systems, and the need for adequate resources and research.
“The challenge isn’t just about food security or climate change but how we respond and adapt to them, both nationally and as an African continent,” he noted.
Elaborating on individual nations’ efforts, Mr. Dessalegn cited the significant strides Ethiopia had made, “In Ethiopia, over the past two years, we saw a culmination of strategic engagements that had been ongoing for several years. We managed to meet our food needs and even produced an excess, approximately 20% of wheat, suitable for export.” He also commended Zimbabwe’s achievements, mentioning, “Zimbabwe is now a major food producer.”
Highlighting Africa’s agricultural promise, Mr. Dessalegn drew attention to vast arable areas such as the Limpopo River Basin, the Niger-Senegal River Basin in West Africa, and the lake regions surrounding Malawi, Tanganyika, and Victoria. “We must prioritise these food baskets for rapid growth,” he urged. He said Africa can do it and in the next five years, Africa should transition from being a net importer to a net exporter of staple crops like wheat, rice, and edible oil seeds.
A glance at the three significant agricultural zones mentioned by Mr. Dessalegn
1. The Limpopo River Basin: A Jewel of Southern Africa
Stretching across four nations – Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe – the Limpopo River Basin is more than just a river system. It’s a lifeline.
- Geographical Span: Spanning an impressive 415,000 square kilometers, the basin is a major contributor to the region’s agricultural output.
- Crop Diversity: Its fields are golden with maize, punctuated with patches of sorghum, millet, and groundnuts.
- Irrigation: The basin’s semi-arid character isn’t a limitation but an opportunity. With proper water management and infrastructure, vast tracts of land could be turned arable.
- The Challenge Ahead: Water scarcity remains a concern, given the region’s periodic droughts and inconsistent rainfall. The need is for sustainable water management practices that ensure long-term productivity.
2. Niger-Senegal River Basin: West Africa’s Liquid Gold
Winding through seven nations, the Niger River, coupled with the Senegal River, forms a basin that’s the heartbeat of West Africa.
- Geographical Immensity: Covering a staggering 2.1 million square kilometers, the Niger River Basin alone stands as a testament to West Africa’s agricultural prowess.
- Crops Galore: The fields here sway with rice, millet, and sorghum, while yam patches dot the landscape.
- Water, the Elixir: The extensive water resources offer scope for expansive irrigated agriculture, ensuring year-round farming.
- The Challenge Ahead: While the region’s potential is immense, it grapples with issues like deforestation, sporadic flooding, and the mounting pressures of an increasing population.
3. The Great Lakes of East Africa: More than Just Waters
Lake Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi. Names synonymous with East Africa’s vitality. These freshwater titans are not just sources of water but hubs of life and activity.
- Lakes of Distinction: Lake Victoria proudly stands as Africa’s largest by area, while Lake Tanganyika boasts of being the continent’s longest and second-deepest. Lake Malawi secures its place among the top five by volume.
- Diverse Agriculture: From the aromatic coffee plantations to vast sugarcane fields, from maize farms to cotton patches, these regions are agriculturally diverse.
- A Fisherman’s Haven: Providing livelihoods to millions, these lakes are bustling fishery hubs.
- The Challenge Ahead: The threats are real – overfishing, pollution, and invasive species jeopardize the lakes’ ecosystem balance.