Food Systems in Africa: It’s Time for Assessment and Urgent Action

By Amath Pathe Sene

In the past two decades, African governments have been working significantly towards transforming their food systems. The objectives set in the Maputo and Malabo Declarations remain ambitious for agriculture transformation in Africa, but progress has been slow. The recent implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) offers an opportunity to remove trade barriers and strengthen intra-regional trade, providing farmers and other actors in agri-food value chains with a solid incentive to increase local production and transform food systems. Considering that at least one in five people in Africa suffers from hunger and the population is expected to reach two billion by 2050, it is imperative to take immediate action to ensure access to healthy and sufficient food. In this context, the main challenge remains the financing of food systems.

In June 2023, world leaders gathered in Paris for the Summit for a New Global Financial Pact, organized in response to a radical call by African leaders and the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, to rethink and restructure the global financial system and strengthen financial support to developing countries facing debt, climate change, and poverty. With the debt service issue on the summit’s agenda, the World Bank decided to pause debt repayments for countries affected by extreme climate events (only for new loans, not already granted ones). Zambia also agreed with its official bilateral creditors to restructure $6.3 billion of its bilateral debt, representing over $ a third of its total public external debt, which amounts to over $18 billion (Trans 2023). Despite the insufficiency of the agreement to significantly reduce Zambia’s debt burden, it allows the government to receive a disbursement of $188 million out of the $1.3 billion support granted by the IMF in 2022. For the 21 African countries threatened or already in a situation of debt distress ( n/d), it is imperative to reduce their debt so that they can invest significantly in their agricultural sector, the backbone of many African economies, as well as in food systems in general.

Among other significant announcements made during the summit regarding multilateral financing, progress was made by the IMF to make 100 billion dollars of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) available to vulnerable countries, thereby enabling several African countries to have the much-needed liquidity. In addition, the World Bank and other multilateral development banks plan to make an additional 200 billion dollars available in loans over the next five years. This shows that it is worth keeping the pressure on governments and international organizations to honor their commitments and promises (Tran 2023).

During the June summit, Senegal signed its fourth Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) agreement, this time with G7 countries, which will provide an initial funding of $2.74 billion for renewable energy projects (Renew Africa 2023). This agreement represents a significant step forward in harnessing the energy potential of our continent, which can be used to propel the transition to sustainable food systems. The call for an African Union seat at the G20 also gained momentum in the period leading up to the summit.

The overall assessment of food systems Countries worldwide are participating in the very first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement, which aims to review progress made in achieving essential climate goals. The main results of the stocktake are expected to be presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28), scheduled for later this year in the United Arab Emirates. It will not be surprising if one of the main conclusions of this process is that the world, including most African countries, still has a long way to go to achieve the goals of the Agreement, especially concerning emission reductions, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and adequate funding for developing countries.

Meanwhile, another critical moment of “global stocktaking,” this time focusing on food systems, is taking place this week, from July 24 to 26 of this year, the first UN Food Systems 2023 Summit in Rome, Italy, as part of the follow-up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit 2021. Convened by the UN Secretary-General, this meeting aims to create a conducive space for countries to review the action commitments made during the Summit, share successful experiences and early signs of transformation, and maintain momentum for bold action to strengthen the resilience of food systems (FAO, n/d). The UN Food Systems Coordination Hub has developed a model that countries can use to structure the progress review of their commitments and food systems in general.

If Africa takes the lead, it can take advantage of the review processes of the aforementioned declarations and commitments to accelerate the transformation of our food systems. It is well known that the agriculture and food sectors are among the highest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, it is also true that adequate investments in transitioning to sustainable, resilient, and inclusive food systems would make agriculture a key part of the solution. In fact, without this transition, many global goals cannot be achieved. Hence, the importance of maintaining pressure on developed countries to fulfill their promises of providing the resources needed by developing countries to sustainably increase food production and supply for their rapidly growing population.

Recently, we have seen how things can quickly deteriorate in Africa during crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine highlight the vulnerability of African food systems to external shocks. Fertilizer prices have tripled in some African countries due to the conflict, affecting the costs of food production, while global inflation has led to a rise in food prices, especially for imported food items, but not exclusively. This situation adds to the annual food bill of over $35 billion, further pressuring African countries’ foreign exchange reserves and diverting essential resources from investment in food systems in the region.

The African context is marked by paradoxes: food insecurity is increasing in the region despite millions of hectares of fertile land remaining uncultivated. The explanation for this situation is quite complex, as the reality on the ground varies considerably from one country or even sub-region to another, but common obstacles faced by farmers, agri-food value chains, and African countries include high levels of vulnerability to climate variability and extreme events, unfavorable growth conditions, underinvestment or undercapitalization of technology and innovation, information and infrastructure, fragmented markets, and a general lack of capacity to cope with major climate change risks. However, the technology and knowledge needed to improve land use efficiency and productivity levels already exist. For example, in a region where the vast majority of farmers depend on rainfall, the implementation of irrigation systems can increase land use efficiency and agricultural productivity by 50%. Nevertheless, the serious lack of access to financing prevents farmers, Small and

Medium Enterprises (SMEs), and governments from harnessing a myriad of untapped opportunities for investment and innovation – another paradoxical situation plaguing the continent.

Therefore, African governments and the private sector urgently need to implement policies that address the weak linkages between food systems and the financial sector to accelerate public and private investments in productive, nutritious, inclusive, and climate-resilient food systems. Creativity and innovation are indeed essential to transform our food systems into systems capable of sustainably feeding the continent and creating decent job opportunities for our dynamic youth and women.

In this context, the upcoming 2023 African Food Systems Forum, scheduled in early September in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, represents an opportunity to assess the progress made in transforming food systems in Africa and redefine the continental agenda before COP28.

From September 4 to 8, the summit will bring together experts, businesses, and prominent delegates from across Africa and the world to assess the situation of African agri-food and agricultural sectors and collectively define decisive strategies and urgent actions to enable the continent to recover and rebuild its food systems.

As emphasized by this year’s summit theme, Recover, Regenerate, Act: Africa’s Solutions to Food Systems Transformation.,” the goal is to ensure that the African continent continues to take the lead in rapidly relaunching and transforming food systems. The summit will be an opportunity to showcase the latest African solutions, innovations, and best practices, including technologies for regenerating natural resources. It will serve as a gathering platform to promote the production of sufficient, locally sourced, and more nutritious food while improving how they are produced, particularly in climate change.

One of the key highlights of this year’s summit will be the participation of women and youth in food systems transformation, focusing on their engagement in reviewing progress and establishing new partnerships to accelerate the achievement of these goals. In Sub-Saharan Africa, women provide an average of 40% of the labor in agricultural production, highlighting the importance of their role in the agricultural sector and food systems. However, to recognize and strengthen women’s position and contribution to food and agriculture, there is an urgent need to significantly improve their access to resources, knowledge, training, business opportunities, and markets. Additionally, with Africa being a youthful continent, with 60% of the population under 24 years old and approximately 12 million young people entering the job market each year, there is a significant opportunity to leverage the energy, creativity, and innovative spirit of young people and give them a significant role in transforming the continent’s food systems. These are the foundations of successful national programs, such as the Tanzanian initiative “Building a Better Tomorrow – Youth Initiative for Agribusiness” (BBT-YIA). The BBT-YIA initiative prioritizes investments in education, training, and access to financial and non-financial resources for women and youth, enabling them to become the driving force behind sustainable and inclusive agricultural growth in Africa.

Also, during this year’s summit, the Agribusiness Dealroom will enhance its capacity to connect entrepreneurs and governments with investors, funds, and technical service providers, facilitating access to financing and technical support to advance innovation and national transformation plans.

This year’s summit promises to be a crucial milestone in Africa’s food security and shared prosperity journey. I earnestly hope that you will join us for this exciting moment in seeking solutions to accelerate the transformation of Africa’s food system.

The author is the Managing Director of the African Food Systems Forum (AGRF).