Ticket out of poverty

Market in Nigeria. Photo by IITA
A market in Nigeria. photo by IITA

The world’s food supply has for the last few decades worked well but now new dynamics, as reflected by the recent food crisis, call for change. The current system, based on large-scale production in the developed world, is efficient and responsive to market dictates though distorted by subsidies. It could be stabilized when complemented with a more significant system from the developing world. Such a two-tiered system would also protect poor regions of the world from extreme food scenarios.

Today’s world food situation has been well aired in the media. But what is not fully appreciated is the opportunity it also brings for Africa. As the most food-deprived region of the world, Africa needs a more robust agricultural growth. This food crisis, albeit temporary, could be used to trigger an agricultural turn-around. African countries are food importers and thus affected by international prices of traded food commodities, but have untapped assets to exploit for the immediate and longer term.

The African food basket is, in many countries, complex and its commodities are affected differently by international food prices. For example, while maize prices in Tanzania were dragged up with the world prices, the effect on sorghum, cassava, and plantain was much less. This allows some immediate substitution and underscores the need for focusing on local production, helps reduce foreign currency needs that limit a country’s purchasing power, and stimulates rural economies to benefit both the rural and urban poor.1

Food commodities also allow for substitution in agroprocessing. If rice is used to produce starch, it can be replaced with other crops such as millet/sorghum or roots and tubers. Bread does not have to be 100% wheat. Tef, banana, sweetpotato, millet, sorghum, and a mix can be used that includes cassava, and yam. This richness needs to be more appreciated and encouraged.2

For the less immediate term Africa just needs to produce more (see Figure 1). Its food output is extremely low. But its diversity of ecologies, altitudes, and cultures, is a powerful asset. Africa can produce more food by expanding acreage, unlike Asia. But other things need to happen before the potential of ample arable lands can be realized. Immediate needs would be rural feeder roads, access to credit and inputs, and a stimulated processing sector. The latter is increasingly important as the growing urban migration means more consumers are far from production zones and food shelf-life and convenience are major concerns.

Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.
Figure 1. Index of total agricultural output per capita by region (index 1961-2005). Adapted from FAOSTAT 2006. Source: Hazel and Woods.

For the medium term, Africa has to increase yields. For most food crops of sub-Saharan Africa3 yields can be increased by 150-300% immediately, because varieties already exist with this potential4.

To benefit more from what it grows, Africa also needs a parallel effort to reduce huge (postharvest) losses, ranging from 18 to 40% depending on the crop. Investments in food processing and transformation, energy, and roads are needed.

This processing and transformation capacity is also critical to address the rural-to-urban migration, which is itself a major challenge. Not long ago, 80-90% of Africans were rural; today most are urban. Wars have accelerated rural-to-urban migration. Africa must increase production even more, because it is not one to one in feeding the urban versus the rural poor. As production systems function today there is tremendous waste at all levels, rural and urban.

A holistic approach to the sector is essential and includes the now well-rehearsed list of needs and problems—infrastructure, finance, taxation, corruption, communication, soils, inputs, productivity, and numerous postharvest technologies and processes. As these elements are developed and constraints cleared away, the approach has to adjust. Underinvestment in infrastructure is costly in many ways. Transport difficulties, for example, give Malawi’s (2007/8) maize surpluses few outlets so that farmers do not fully gain from favorable global prices.

Family eating banana
Family eating banana

It is not uncommon to have food shortages in one part of a country, when another has food surpluses. Poor information and transport systems, plus the short shelf-life of many commodities prevent Africa from benefiting fully from its harvest. In Ethiopia, widespread drought (2003) in some parts of the country put at risk over 12 million people, while in other parts, prices collapsed due to a bumper crop of cereals (Borlaug and Natios). Zambians (2004) were suffering from a shortage of cassava, when Nigeria had abundant surpluses.

Small producers are one group that needs special attention. While they are the key to Africa’s food self-sufficiency, it is hard for them to respond effectively to increased food needs on their own. One way to support them is to encourage the movement of their produce into alternative uses within the food chain.1 Again, this means investments in the agroprocessing sectors and a slew of processed food products. Farmers take all the risks but rarely benefit long from any gains.

Conclusion: The full use of Africa’s assets—arable land, different ecologies, altitudes, cultural differences, and eating habits—gives Africa resources more powerful than oil. Emphasizing and then benefiting from the agricultural sector has positive repercussions that reach far into all segments of an economy, in particular in increasing employment at all levels and with it, purchasing power.

1 Hartmann. 2004. An Approach to Hunger and Poverty. IITA.
2 Cereal imports in the last couple of years have increased by a factor of three to five times.
3 Rice is the exception where the yield gap is around 67%.
4 For example, IITA varieties of these crops already have this potential built into their genetic codes.