5 practical steps African governments should take to keep food systems intact when the next pandemic hits 

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

October 22, 2020

COVID-19 has hit world economies hard, and the agricultural sector is no exception. Restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of the global pandemic have made it more difficult for farmers to access inputs, like fertilizers and crop protection products, and sell their produce, resulting in hardships for farmers and consumers alike.

Between 83 million and 132 million people “may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by the pandemic,” according to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report published by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and other United Nations (UN) agencies. Some 690 million people already are estimated to be hungry across the globe and are “unable to meet their food requirements.” The report observes that “the hungry are most numerous in Asia but expanding fastest in Africa.” Although Africa has just 16 percent of the world’s population, according to the UN, it is home to about 27 percent of the world’s hungry people.

Even more Africans are likely to suffer during a pandemic because of the continent’s institutionally weak agricultural infrastructure and over-dependence on foreign support in the agriculture value chain.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here I propose five practical measures that African governments can take to ensure food resilience and security when the next pandemic hits.

Boost consumption of local foods

The main way to keep Africa’s food systems intact is through a conscious effort to encourage local production and consumption of food. Although Africa has more than 60 percent of the globe’s arable uncultivated land, it spends about US$50 billion annually on food imports, the majority of which could be produced on the continent. Almost half of my country’s (Ghana) annual US$1.5 billion food import bill goes toward the purchase of rice, even though rice is produced in all 16 regions of the country. Consumers claim that imported rice has a better aroma. Imported chicken is actually cheaper to buy. Meanwhile, local producers have no market for these products. It’s untenable that the continent continues to rely on imported rice, poultry and other foods when we have the capacity to produce them in abundance. Governments should introduce barriers (including higher taxes and targeted bans) that will encourage reliance on local foods instead of imports so there will be no cause for alarm during pandemics, when all countries are looking inwards.

Invest vigorously in boosting farm productivity

African governments should invest heavily in measure to improve agricultural productivity. It’s sad that African farms produce an average of 1.5 tonnes per hectare of corn, while farmers in the United States  produce more than 10 tonnes per hectare. Changing this dismal statistic will require conscious investments in agricultural inputs, including fertilizers, chemicals for pest and disease control and more importantly, improved and certified seeds. One technology that can make a lot of difference is genetically modified (GM) seeds. The increased adoption of GM seeds on the continent can be a gamechanger in boosting productivity. Currently, GM crops are grown in only three African countries, but GM technology has played a significant role in boosting production across the world. In some cases, African countries that have restricted production of GM seeds locally turn around and import GM crops to feed the population. If it’s okay to import the final product, what is the sense in holding onto regulatory barriers that make it impossible to grow GM crops locally? Over the last 23 years of growing GM crops, the technology has been responsible for the additional global production of 278 million tonnes of soybeans, 498 million tonnes of corn and 32.6 million tonnes of cotton lint, among other crops — without additional use of land. That’s remarkable by all standards. This technology can be developed locally to meet regional needs and deal with challenges unique to the continent. Before the next COVID-19 hits, let’s be aware that a boost in productivity is crucial to ensuring that something will be available for consumption. It is morally imperative for African leaders to prioritize the food security of their people over the interest of special interest groups and allow GM crops to be grown on the continent.

Expand local production of seeds, fertilizers and machinery

African governments need to make their countries less reliant on imported inputs. For example, in the year 2016, Africa imported about 4.3 million nutrient tons of fertilizer, up from 3.1 million in 2011. This is despite the reality that Africa has an abundance of the mineral reserves needed to produce nitrogen, phosphorus and potash, which are the three major plant macronutrients. African governments must create the enabling environment to ensure more seed companies and other agricultural input firms are established to supply smallholder farmers, instead of relying on imported inputs. Tax breaks, low interest loans and reduced tariffs on amenities should be given to entrepreneurs who are ready to set up agricultural input firms so they can take charge of providing most of the input that African farmers need. This will keep local food security intact in times of a pandemic and create more jobs for young people all over the continent. African governments should also support farmers with subsidies to ensure they can afford the inputs that will make their farming activities more efficient.

Increase food processing and storage facilities

Going forward, African governments need to encourage industries that will process crops locally to extend their shelf life, produce food and make it easier to transport and sell these products. In 2011, the FAO estimated that about 37 percent of food produced in sub-Saharan Africa is lost between production and consumption. That figure has not changed much over the years and the only way to close the gap is through increased processing. Capacity should be built for such processing companies to spring up. Once this is done, farmers will be able to continue selling their produce to local processing firms even if pandemics close country borders. Why should West Africa be exporting virtually all of its cocoa to Europe, America and China for processing, creating a situation where even the local confectionary market on the continent is dominated by chocolates produced in the Netherlands and United Kingdom? Local facilities can be made available to smallholder farmers to process some of these cash crops for local sales. This will ensure that farmers earn even more for their cocoa, as value-added processed products fetch more money than raw commodities.

Build the capacity of African farmers

Some 27 percent of the world’s illiterate people live in sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates, and the majority of them are poor, rural farmers. Meanwhile, agriculture as we have known it is not the same today as it was a generation ago. Information and communication technologies (ICT), artificial intelligence and robotics are changing the way agriculture is done from the hoe and cutlass activity that we have known. It’s unfair that a lawyer must necessarily be educated and hold a certificate, but it’s okay for a food producer to have little or no education. The ordinary African farmer should be able— like other farmers across the globe — to sit behind a computer and irrigate his or her crops, apply pesticides in the right quantities and adequately calculate how much money a field is likely to earn at the end of the planting season. Efficient agricultural production is now more of a brain activity than a physical one. The African farmer must not be left behind. Skills training, tutorials on using information technology (IT) in agricultural and investments in state-of-the-art farm equipment are urgently needed on the continent. A highly knowledgeable and capacity-built farmer will be in a better position to predict market trends and respond to the uncertainties of a pandemic.

Golden opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic is giving all of us in Africa a golden opportunity to use our own local resources and skills to turn our agricultural production around and reduce hunger on the continent. Africa is a powerhouse that the world can look to for food in times of trouble. But achieving that status will require careful planning, conscious investments, hard work and serious commitment from political leaders. Now is the time to do the things that will make it possible for us to produce food more efficiently and increase our export capacity while creating jobs for the millions of unemployed African youth. Let us not miss this opportunity.

Image: Commercial maize farming in South Africa. Shutterstock/Sunshine Seeds