Africa facing worst food crisis over Russia-Ukraine war – AfDB’s agric vice-president

Beth Dunford is the vice president for agriculture, human and social development at the African Development Bank. In this interview with JOSEPHINE OKOJIE on the sidelines of the just-concluded AfDB Annual Meetings in Accra, Ghana, she speaks on the multilateral lender efforts in ensuring that Africa grows the food it consumes and the recently launched $1.5billion Africa Emergency Food Production facility.

How is the Russian-Ukraine war impacting Africa’s food security?

We have seen the unprecedented impact of the Russian Ukrainian War, especially on food, and Africa has been badly hit. As you know, millions of Africans go to bed hungry every night. And this unacceptable level of food insecurity is being made much worse by the war in Ukraine, which exposes Africa’s vulnerability because it depends on costly imports to meet basic needs. We’ve seen a 20 to 50percent price increase in basic staples – wheat, maize, and soybean, among others, and up to a 300percent price increase in fertilizer. Again, this is very dramatic and it’s hitting homes across Africa. This isn’t the first time we’ve experienced a global food price crisis. But again, this one is arguably worse because it’s coming on the heels of the covid-19 pandemic for which we haven’t quite recovered, and increasing climate change. So it’s a very serious situation.

I think the difference now is that we have been investing in agriculture for quite some time. One of the results of these investments are new technologies that can help farmers adapt to climate change and increase their yields and productivity. The problem is that this technology is not yet out to farmers at scale. Our Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation Programme (TAAT) is working to fix that. We’re working to scale up these technologies and get them out to farmers with technical assistance so they can increase production here on the continent.

Nigeria imports 5.6 million metric tons of wheat and it costs a lot of money. Now, we have a new technology called ‘heat-tolerant wheat’ which allows farmers to plant wheat in areas with hot climates and will help increase the domestic production of wheat that so many Africans depend on. The projection of the program is to reduce imports by 40percent hopefully by next year. I think that it can quickly scale up if this technology reaches more farmers.

Is the TAAT currently being deployed in Nigeria?

Yes, it is. It’s deployed on 87,000 hectares and this fall season will go up to 250,000 hectares. This is the basis of the $1.5 billion Africa Emergency Food Production facility that was just approved recently. This facility will be supporting African governments to reach 20 million farmers with improved technologies like this heat-tolerant wheat that I talked about to produce 38 million metric tons of food on the continent. The emergency fund will scale up this production very quickly to mitigate the crisis but do it in a way again that can provide the foundation for that agricultural transformation that we need to drive economies and sustain livelihoods across Africa and in Nigeria.

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How much is Nigeria getting from the $1.5billion Africa Emergency Food Production facility?

Every country is eligible and we’re working that out right now, but again building on the work that is already ongoing in Nigeria can be scaled up very quickly.

What is the AfDB doing to ensure that Africans start growing the food they eat?

Our focus is to increase productivity on the continent. The main job of the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation Programme is to bring together all the actors in the public and private sectors to scale up the production of the technology and to get them out to farmers so they can increase their production. In Nigeria, we saw yield per hectare of wheat grow from 1.5 tons per hectare to 3 tons, in addition, the area in which you can grow dramatically increased. Again, that is what TAAT has been doing. The $1.5 billion is looking to take this effort and scale it.

In the recently released AfDB’s African Economic report, it was stated that 5.4 million Nigerians are now poor. Would you say there’s a connection between the war and poverty in Africa?

Absolutely, given that two-thirds of people in Africa depend on agriculture for their livelihood. It’s not just the farmers but those within the broader agri-food systems. It could be the processors, the transporters, or the aggregators. Again, the whole agricultural economy fuels the livelihoods of two-thirds of the continent. So, when this sector is suffering, everybody is suffering. There is a deep connection recognizing that the growth of the agriculture sector is the key to launching much broader structural transformation and industrial transformation on the continent.

Which African country would you say has done the most in developing its agriculture commercially on the continent?

There are examples across the continent, and I wouldn’t say one country over another. I think there are good examples of accelerating that transformation, and in Nigeria, we’re investing in the Special Agro-industrial Processive Zones, which are just getting started to improve agricultural production. This will ensure that Nigeria’s agricultural export gains that extra value further up the value chain that comes from processing agricultural goods and I think that will help fuel that sort of transformation that we need.

What area of lapses have you identified that you would want the leaders on the continent to address so that African agriculture can forge ahead?

There are opportunities across the entire value chain, across the entire agro-food system. Getting new technologies out and facilitating that with governments and the private sector to distribute those inputs to farmers is critical. Having the latest technologies and the technical support they need to increase their production is important. Also, creating an enabling business environment and access to finance is crucial to growing the agro-food systems.

Again, it’s around input delivery. It’s a commercial enterprise, right? So even the smallest smallholder needs to be looked at farming as a business and then really connecting to markets and building those markets to be stronger and more resilient and deliver the products that consumers need on the ground.

How do you choose the farmers that benefit from some of these AfDB’s intervention projects in Africa?

The express goal is to reach the end-user, that is the smallholder farmers. To make sure that everyone is eligible and that this is broad-based – one of the important things that ensure that this is an inclusive effort is to ensure that there is technology adoption to track and increase the efficiency, accountability, transparency, and inclusiveness of this effort.

We’re also looking on the market side to ensure that the entrepreneurs have the support they need in terms of financing, in terms of infrastructure, and technical assistance to build and pull the product because once we increase production, we have to make sure that there are markets.

So what would be your general advice to the African governments, especially Nigeria, on how to increase agricultural production?

It is important to facilitate public and private collaboration to ensure that inputs and technical assistance get out to farmers at scale. Also, it’s important to know that digital technology really helps the facilitation, delivery, accountability, and transparency of these efforts and we’re here to support them.

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