Hunger Increases: Why Africa must act now to feed itself and in future

Africans take to the land
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After losing his job, Judas Ncube, shown with his wife Thokozile, became successful farmers. Photo: Sifelani Tsiko

Zimbabwe this week hosted the 31st Session of the Regional Conference for Africa of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations at a time when the continent needs strategies to boost food production in the wake of novel coronavirus restrictions and attendant challenges.

Expectations were high that the conference held virtually, would more likely come up with lasting solutions that are meaningful, effective and sustainable.

Zimbabwe recently launched its Agriculture and Food Systems Transformation Strategy to boost agricultural productivity through several outlined action plans and hosting this conference clearly highlights the importance of the country not only to Africa but to the family of nations, despite the continued existence of sanctions against it.

Such endorsements to host major regional and global meetings underline why Zimbabwe is right in its unrelenting call to have sanctions lifted. More than 80 ministers and deputy ministers from more than 45 countries are taking part, as well as representatives from observer countries, donor organizations, civil society and the private sector. Hundreds of delegates joined the Zoom sessions and many more watched the live webcast, helping bring Zimbabwe under spotlight.

It is important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing food insecurity and malnutrition in many African countries. In recent years, climate change, conflict, economic slowdowns and pests such as Desert Locusts and Fall Armyworm have corroded livelihoods and pushing more people into hunger and poverty.

The FAO says Africa has recorded the fastest growth in the number of hungry people compared to other regions and will have the greatest total number of hungry people in the next decade, outstripping Asia, if current trends persist. It is against this backdrop that Africa must act now if it is to feed itself in 2050 when the population would have more than doubled. Africa must grow what it eats first. It must grow enough cereals to feed its growing population and reduce over reliance on food imports.

African countries need to break a culture of complacency and start now to invest more in agriculture to be able to feed itself. One way to meet growing demand is to expand the land area to grow crops with cautionary actions to minimize the cutting down forests or encroaching on protected nature reserves, something which may lead to loss of biodiversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It is also possible for Africa to feed a population expected to grow 2.5 times by 2050 by producing more food on the land already being planted. This requires huge investment in heavy machinery for large scale farms and also appropriate machinery for smallholder farming activities to boost crop yields and increase the number of crops grown on the same plot of land.

An expansion of irrigation activities is also vital to help boost productivity under dry or drought conditions. With the right policies, transparency and sound management of agricultural programs, it is very possible to intensify crop production and move the continent to reduce dependence on imports of cereals than it is today.

Supporting the development of new and suitable crop varieties as well as offering support to smallholder farmers can help Africa to feed itself and even become the bread basket for the rest of the world.

More than 60% of our people here in Africa live in rural areas and are dependent overwhelmingly on agriculture for livelihoods. A lot has been said at various regional and international conferences about the need to transform agriculture and food systems on our continent. Despite, all the blueprints and various declarations, low productivity of farming, the poor state of rural infrastructure, digital exclusion and poor access to modern tools and agronomic information continue to affect crop production on the continent.

The transformation of the agricultural sector here in Africa must be jump-started and supported in every way possible. Our food and agricultural systems must move away from subsistence level and managing poverty to an industrialized food planting and processing business for creating wealth for our youth, women and everyone. In 2017, the African Development Bank said Africa imports US$35 billion of food net annually and that this was expected to rise to US $110 billion by 2025, if current trends continue.

By growing what we do not consume and consuming what we do not grow, the bank said Africa is decimating its rural areas, exporting its jobs, eroding the incomes of its farmers, and losing its youth through voluntary migration to Europe and elsewhere. One could imagine what US$35 billion per year will do if Africa feeds itself. As Africans, we are looking forward to the outcomes of this milestone event being hosted here on the Zimbabwean soil.

We hope the delegates to this virtual conference will come up with concrete strategies to help build food and agriculture systems resilient to crises such as climate extremes and transboundary pests and diseases. Africa is desperate for agricultural industrialization and value addition strategies to all its agricultural commodities.

We need to quickly change our import priorities for agricultural products and provide appropriate incentives and facilities to grow food and build agribusiness companies in our rural areas. We need to motivate and encourage our youth to take up agriculture more seriously as a business and a way out of poverty.

It is possible for Africa to feed itself. And if it does, it will be able to feed the rest of the world. The 31st Session of the Regional Conference for Africa of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations must not disappoint. It must come up with a Harare Declaration that should provide a biblical reference on how Africa can feed itself.

Sifelani Tsiko is a veteran Zimbabwean journalist based in Harare. 

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