The Sad, Sorry and Scary state of food insecurity in Africa

The annual report – The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 (SOFI 2022) – was released on July 8, 2022, and exposed, unfortunately, the worsening state of food insecurity in Africa. There is no good news to report in my view. With just eight years remaining for countries around the world to end hunger, food insecurity and all forms of malnutrition as agreed under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, most countries in Africa are not on track to meet the sustainable development goals (SDGs) relating to hunger and food insecurity and many are actually moving in the opposite direction.

What is really sad about the food insecurity situation in Africa is the sheer number of people in the continent that are food insecure. A whooping 795 million people in Africa were moderately or severely food insecure in 2021. Of those affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, more than 40 percent (about 322 million) faced food insecurity at severe levels meaning that they had run out of food and had gone a day or more without eating. The situation in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is even more dismal. Of the 795 million people in Africa that suffered moderate or severe food insecurity in 2021, 709.4 million were in SSA and 85.3 in Northern Africa.

What this means is that although most of the people suffering from severe food insecurity live in Asia (about 1.2 billion), Africa actually has the highest prevalence of severe food insecurity in the world. In 2021, the prevalence of severe food insecurity in Africa was 23.4 percent, compared to 10.5 percent in Asia and 14.2 in Latin America and the Caribbean. At 23.4 percent, the prevalence of severe food insecurity in Africa is double the world average of 11.7 percent. What is truly sad about the state of food insecurity in Africa is that experts agree that Africa’s full agricultural potential remains untapped. A 2019 article, Winning in Africa’s Agricultural Markets, from McKinsey & Company concluded that Africa agriculture can play a greater role in supplying local and global food demand and could produce two to three times more cereals and grains but only if the conditions are right.

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The sorry state of food insecurity in Africa is evident in the fact that hunger is very much on the rise in the continent even though governments in the region have adopted a plethora of declarations and resolutions all pledging to curb food insecurity in the continent, and have rolled out numerous policies, initiatives and actions all aimed at stemming food insecurity. The largest increase of hunger in 2021, both in terms of percentage and number of people, was recorded in Africa. Worse, moderate or severe food insecurity increased the most in Africa in 2021. According to SOFI 2022, while levels of moderate or severe insecurity remained stable at the global level, Africa recorded the largest increase in moderate or severe food insecurity between 2020 and 2021. About 322 million Africans faced severe food insecurity in 2021 – 21.5 million more than in 2020 and 58 million more than in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sorry state of food insecurity in Africa is also reflected in the fact that African leaders are not short of ideas on how to transform food systems in the region and have made countless commitments to address hunger and malnutrition in the region. Back in 2003, African Heads of State and Government adopted the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security in Africa (Maputo Declaration). In 2014, African Heads of State and Government adopted the Malabo Declaration on “Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods (Malabo Declaration). Sadly, most governments in Africa are failing in their Maputo and Malabo commitments. According to the Third Biennial Review on the progress in the implementation of the Malabo Declaration, only one country in Africa – Rwanda – is on-track to meet the goals and targets of Malabo by 2025. Shocking!

The food insecurity situation in Africa is scary for so many reasons. For starters, the future appears to be very bleak if experts are to be believed. Under a business-as-usual scenario, Africa in general and SSA in particular has no chance of achieving Zero Hunger by 2030 and more people on the continent are likely to be affected by hunger in 2030 than is the case today. Based on extrapolation of recent trends relating to the total supply of food, the population size and composition, and the degree of inequality in food access within the populations, experts project that as many as 670 million people, majority in Africa, will still be undernourished in 2030. Although a gradual reduction in global hunger by 2030 is projected, according to SOFI 2022, the projected reduction “is largely due to the significant improvements foreseen for Asia … and to a simultaneous worsening in Africa.” It is quite scary to learn that by 2030, the number of undernourished (NoU) in Asia is expected to fall from the current 425 million to around 295 million while the NoU in Africa is projected to grow from almost 280 million to more than 310 million.

Ending hunger is an imperative for countries in Africa. In a 2015 report, Food Security in Africa – Water on Oil, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) warned, rightly, that to thrive economically and socially, Africa needs first to deal with its own US$35bn structural food deficit before it can play a role in alleviating long-term strategic supply impediments across the world. Transforming Africa’s food systems will not be easy. For one thing, the factors contributing to rising levels of hunger in Africa and fragility of food systems in the region are many and include climate change, conflicts, terrorism, corruption, demographic changes, and gender inequality to mention a few. For another, the political will to bring about real and lasting change in the continent appears to be absent.

All hope is not lost. The foundations for successful agricultural transformation are there. On the supply side, the continent boasts an abundance of fertile land, cheap labor and water. On the demand side are a number of factors including rising food requirements and new private and public investment in the agri-food sector. Moreover, experts agree that if the necessary conditions are in place, Africa could experience agricultural transformation comparable to that of countries like Brazil and China. In this regard, PwC predicts that “All roads may lead to Africa,” in the future, that African agriculture “is likely to witness a transformation over the next two decades,” and that “Africa represents an extraordinary resource not only capable of supplying domestic needs for multiple African nations but also of becoming a major source of world food supplies.”

Africa’s food systems can be transformed but this calls for serious, urgent and very delicate policy, legal and regulatory footwork. If experts are right in their conclusion that enhancing investment finance in agriculture, especially public expenditures in agriculture, “is a fundamental instrument for the African governments to achieve food security, reduce poverty, increase resilience, and environmental health,” then African governments must do better including by ensuring access to finance for farmers and committing at least 10% of their GDP to agriculture. Agricultural finance is not a magic wand that can cure all ills in Africa’s food and agricultural sector, however. A plethora of laws and policies must be reviewed and possibly revamped.

To effectively transform food systems in Africa, governments in the region must also address inequalities in all their manifestation. Inequalities are among the root causes of food insecurity in many parts of the world including Africa, according to SOFI 2022. Inequality undermines the availability of food as well as the accessibility of food and the sustainability of food. Sadly, although the constitution of most countries in Africa guarantees equal protection and protect against discrimination, inequality remains very prevalent in the continent and is growing. A ‘vulnerability lens’ in food and nutrition security policy and programming is also absolutely essential in any reform effort. It is imperative that particular attention be paid to the fate of disadvantaged groups of population including children, women, youths, the elderly, low-skilled workers, and the disabled.

There is hope for the agri-food sector in Africa. How to feed a larger, richer and more urban population in the face of climate change and other crisis is a challenge that countries in Africa must have to contend with. It is time for countries in Africa to fully and firmly put the agricultural sector at the heart of development policy and planning. The process of agricultural transformation is a slow one but one that requires a well-executed strategy to be successful. In the final analysis, while there is solution to the sad, sorry and scary state of food insecurity in Africa, getting to the desired solution requires that all key stakeholders immediately return to the drawing board.

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