Time for Africa to rise with agriculture and food systems that work, says Amath Pathé Sene

Africa stands on the verge of transformative change, as it prepares to leverage its agricultural and food systems to ignite sustainable growth and alleviate poverty. Mr. Amath Pathé Sene, the Managing Director of the Africa Food Systems Forum, based in Rwanda, is leading this effort. Recently, Anthony Muchoki and Lilian Pius Ekonga were fortunate enough to engage in a meaningful discussion with him in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Despite his demanding schedule, given the preparations for the upcoming Africa Food Systems Forum 2023 Summit (AGRF 2023), to be hosted by President Samia, Mr. Sene graciously allotted time to converse on a wide array of issues pertaining to agriculture and food systems.

“I am Amath Pathé Sene, the Managing Director of the Africa Food Systems Forum, formerly known as AGRF, or the Africa Green Revolution Forum. I hail from Senegal and am deeply passionate about agriculture and food systems. My passion can be traced back to my childhood days. I am originally from an area called the Groundnut Basin and when I was young, I would commute between the city and the rural area, which is where I developed my connection to rural communities. That was where my interest in instigating change and improving the lives of farmers was born.

This inspired me to become an agricultural engineer. It’s not by accident that I chose to work on agricultural development, especially rebuilding agricultural economies in post-conflict countries. My international career began in Afghanistan before I returned to Africa, my homeland. 

Today, as an African, I consider myself part of the solution. We should advocate for investment in food systems transformation globally, nationally, and regionally, and showcase the best of Africa. I believe Africa can both feed the world and create jobs and opportunities for youth and women across the continent.

Agricultural and food systems in Africa face multiple challenges.

The agricultural sector and food systems in Africa face several challenges. First, our agriculture is predominantly rain-fed, which unfortunately means that farmers in some parts of the continent can only grow crops a few months of year, and most is not mechanized. Therefore, irrigation is required outside the rainy season and although there is significant irrigation potential in the region, only three to six percent of arable land uses irrigation, as opposed to other regions in the South, where the average is around 56 percent. The lack of irrigation outside the rainy season severely reduces productivity because without it, farmers produce only three months of the year, instead of twelve. 

Additionally, we grapple with issues related to information, data, and digitalization. The absence of crucial information affects the ability to make accurate decisions to boost production. It also impacts finance and risk management: a lack of information makes financial institutions, including microfinance banks and insurance companies, hesitant to provide investment or loans to farmers, especially smallholders and small-scale businesses operating in food chains.

Capacity-building is another significant challenge. Agriculture has always been a traditional activity, and there is a need to view it as a business opportunity and to modernize the sector. A better understanding of its functioning, particularly among youth and women and technicians is also required so they can work together to solve local problems.

Moreover, climate change is a significant issue for all agricultural economies, more so in Africa. African farmers are particularly vulnerable to rainfall variability, temperature fluctuations, and the occurrence of droughts and floods.

There are many challenges in managing a range of risks: capacity-related, operational, political, etc. If these risks persist, it will be difficult to attract large-scale investments.

Despite these challenges, we also have massive opportunities. Africa possesses nearly 60% of the world’s arable land, and we have various ecosystems. 

In the case of Tanzania today, it has a diversity of ecosystems: a coastal zone, arid and  semi-arid zones, plateaus, highlands and an alluvial zone. This enables Tanzania to grow a plethora of crops. This, in turn, allows Tanzania to produce enough to feed its people and export surplus production, and to add value through business ventures in agro-processing.

Furthermore, the population is very young, comparatively speaking, with people under 25 making up approximately 50 to 60 percent of the total population. This youthful demographic is not just a statistic; it means that there is a significant workforce that can be mobilized to boost our agricultural sector, provided they are given the necessary opportunities.

Likewise, women, especially in rural areas, play a crucial role in agricultural value chains. Accounting for around 60 percent of our agricultural workforce, women are a fundamental part of the solution to enhancing our agricultural productivity and economy. 

Additionally, Africa represents a vast market. With a current population of 1.4 billion, which is expected to rise to 2 billion in the near future, urbanization rates are increasing and the demand for food is growing. Presently, we import more than 75 billion dollars worth of food. This highlights a gap in our production and supply capabilities — one that our agricultural economies have the potential to fill. This will require a significant undertaking on a continent-wide level.

What is encouraging to see is that there is a wave of positive sentiment among the newer generations, who are eager to see changes. They want to be part of the movement to feed people and generate jobs in the agriculture and food system value chains. This makes the sector attractive to everyone, as it offers vast opportunities for investment. For investors, especially those who do not necessarily face a lot of competition, this presents a tremendous investment opportunity. Investment in this sector can potentially generate high returns.

Why AGRF in Tanzania…

Tanzania has long been at the forefront of the agricultural sector, demonstrating remarkable progress and development since gaining independence. The country’s commitment to modernization, mechanization, and industrialization has made it a key player in the region’s agricultural landscape, earning it the reputation as the food basket for neighboring countries. Tanzania claims to be self-sufficient in numerous commodities, as it produces 116 percent of its own requirements. Notably, in the case of rice, Tanzania’s surplus production caters to the needs of many other countries, reducing reliance within the African Continental Free Trade Area but also the SADC and COMESA regions on imports from outside the region. This makes Tanzania a potential supplier of substitutes for imports from Asia and other parts of the world.

Tanzania’s abundant land and diverse ecosystems offer significant opportunities for cultivating various commodities, ranging from tree crops to staple crops. Additionally, the coastal area provides favorable conditions for fisheries and holds untapped potential for large-scale meat and milk production. With its ample resources and potential, Tanzania has the capacity to feed numerous countries in the region and beyond.

Furthermore, Tanzania has proven to be an attractive destination for investments in the agricultural sector and the overall food system. The country’s growth data and continuous development underscore its openness for business, while the government’s leadership is actively pushing to position Tanzania as a regional leader in agricultural and food system transformation. The alignment of these elements is what led Tanzania to be chosen as the host for the Africa Food System Forum’s 2023 Summit.

With its progressive agricultural practices, ample resources, and dedicated leadership, Tanzania is poised to showcase Africa’s innovative solutions for food system transformation during the summit. The country’s commitment to developing various food system pathways makes it an ideal venue for fostering collaboration and driving meaningful change in the continent’s agriculture and food systems.

The main goals of the Africa Food System Forum’s 2023 Summit 

This year’s summit aims to move the African agenda on food system transformation forward, which will include defining the policies and political direction that Africa should take on this matter.

Similar to what is happening on the global level, the summit will create a space to assess the progress achieved in food systems development from an African perspective. All countries have been engaged in the food system transformation for the past two years. Tanzania is ready to lead the discussion on progress and preparations for moving ahead on the agenda of the Paris climate agreement in Dubai.

The summit will bring many stakeholders together to discuss and explore investment opportunities in the country and other parts of the continent. It will also facilitate discussions between Africa and other regions, such as South America, on key issues high on the global agenda and ways to translate policies into action.

Tanzania will showcase the latest innovations in the area of food systems transformation, as will the rest of Africa. There will be a special moment set aside on the agenda to launch Tanzania’s BBT (Building a Better Tomorrow) Legacy Program to ensure the success of its implementation with the support of significant investments from various partners.

This summit will afford participants a unique opportunity to network and exchange ideas and will promote triangular cooperation. Special attention will be given to youth and women involved in various phases of food system value chains, from production to processing, marketing, and trade. Its Deal Rooms will serve as a platform for MSMEs to pitch their ideas to investors and mobilize support and investments. One of the main objectives of this year’s summit is to increase the political visibility and strengthen Tanzania’s position as a regional leader.

The summit aims to discuss solutions for not only food systems transformation, but also recovery. Africa has been severely impacted by global crises, particularly COVID-19 and the Ukraine-Russian conflict, which have affected the agricultural sector and food systems in general. The disruptions in trade and fertilizer and grain supply from these countries have had major repercussions on Africa’s agricultural industry, adding to the climate impacts and other economic challenges the region faces. Despite these hardships, African economies have shown resilience to shocks in the past, allowing them to bounce back. This context of multiple crises warrants a reevaluation of political policies, operations, and investments to ensure a robust and sustainable recovery.

The theme of this year’s summit is Recover, Regenerate, Act: Africa’s Solutions to Food Systems Transformation. In other words, it is about defining Africa’s solution to fix the system, in which youth and women must play a key role. Ensuring women and youth’s access to opportunities and empowering them to lead is a priority for all African leaders, especially in Tanzania. It is also crucial for all ministries to come together to collaborate and find common solutions. The idea here is not to start from scratch, but rather to build upon existing solutions and accelerate progress. Financing plays a vital role, but much more is needed to implement these solutions effectively. Finally, the summit aims to go beyond mere discussions to produce plans of action, concrete investments and deals, and launch programs as part of the legacy of the annual summit.

What role do youth and women play in the transformation of Africa’s food system?

In any society, particularly in Africa, when you look at the numbers, you’ll find that youth (25 and under) make up more than 60 percent of the population in many countries. Women have been the backbone of all economies, and this is particularly true for Africa. When you reduce the gender gap, you can increase production and productivity along the food system. Women are involved in every segment of the agri-sector in Africa; in some segments, they constitute almost 70 or 80 percent of the workforce.

Focusing on these demographic groups is essential to achieve effective change, particularly in Africa. When youth and women have access to resources, education, knowledge, capacity-building and decision-making, you can be 100 percent sure that there will be significant changes. However, the current situation is far from ideal because there is still a gender gap in many African societies due to context, customs, culture, and certain norms. Addressing these issues will help to accelerate food system transformation and nutritional security, generate wealth and jobs for youth and women, and promote stable and prosperous societies in Africa.

The Africa Food Systems Forum operates several platforms. The “Generation Africa” platform, for instance, goes and finds young entrepreneurs, motivates them, and helps them set up their business. Another example is our “Dealroom” platform, which provides youth and other agripreneurs support in designing funding proposals and projects, finding the right investor, setting up partnerships, and obtaining resources.

We have concrete examples of youths in different countries who are currently running flourishing businesses, despite all types of challenges they are up against. And now, we want to scale them up. To do so, we can use many innovations from both a ticket-size and a technical assistance perspective. Money alone cannot solve all their problems. Especially in sectors that are quite technical and in which many young people may be interested, but do not yet have the capacity they need. So, we need to help them build their capacity to make sure that we have many young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs working in the food systems sector to scale up its ability to feed the continent and create jobs for the millions of youth entering the labor market every year.

The main mandate of the Africa Food Systems Forum secretariat, based in Kigali, which I am heading, is to make sure that from one summit to the next, we track and report on progress, compile and share success stories, etc. We want to digitalize the way we do reporting to enhance our accountability and strengthen our monitoring and evaluation system so it is aligned with our new 2023-2027 Strategy Plan. 

Today, the primary challenge of transforming African food systems is the involvement of many sectors, which requires careful cross-sector coordination of governance and policy to avoid biases or conflicts. For instance, you have one policy that aims to increase production of a certain crop, but at the same time, there is another policy to facilitate imports; obviously, there is a clear conflict between the two, which needs to be resolved. A second key challenge is the lack of investment, which is partly due to issues related to risks. This means, of course, that we need to develop effective ways of dealing with risks. Africa is the continent of opportunities and contrary to what many believe, the risk here is not higher than other places in the world. The third is the lack of information and digitalization. If you want to make agriculture and food systems attractive or appear “cool” to youth, it is important to bring digitalization and new technologies into the picture. We need to make sure that information contributes to policy making, supports implementation with the right investment, and establishes a conducive environment for investment.

Since the official launch at the state house under the leadership of the Government of Tanzania, we have been working closely with different sector ministries in what we call “local organizing committees” (LOCs) on both the mainland and Zanzibar to capture all input from our different partners. The Summit’s program is almost ready, invitations have been sent to 15 current and 10 former Heads of State, ministers, academics and other leading figures in food systems transformation in Africa and abroad. We are expecting over 3000 delegates to attend in person, as well as between 5000 or 7000 participants online.

As the Tanzanian Government promised, the venue is being renovated. When I was there today, I saw that there is a lot of work being done to get ready, as well as other preparations, such as protocols, accommodations, transportation, etc. We are quite confident that we will be ready on time and that this will be a particularly memorable AGRF Summit.

I have two special words for the President of Tanzania: “Asante Sana”. On behalf of the Africa Food System Forum Secretariat, AGRA, and our 29 partners, we express our sincere gratitude to the President and her team for their commitment to making this year’s summit a success. President Samia, the country’s first-ever woman president, deserves to be commended for her strong leadership on agriculture and food systems transformation.

And the message I would extend to all actors and stakeholders from all over the continent and other parts of the world who are working on agriculture and food systems would be, “Welcome to Tanzania! We are looking forward to having you here with us from September 3rd to 8th to work together to transform food systems, bring health and prosperity for all African people and create opportunities for our youth and for women.”

As for the media, I think that this is going to be a big event, with major stakeholders from all parts of the world. We hope to receive wide coverage and we thank you for the great work you have done and continue to do to support this sector, helping to raise awareness and disseminate the right message and information on the numerous opportunities that exist all along food system value chains.”