Farmer Melese Tsegaye picking stalks of wheat. Boru Lencha village, Hetosa district, Arsi highlands, Ethiopia, 2015. Photographer: CIMMYT/ Peter Lowe. Credit: Flickr/ CC BY-NC-SA 2.0/
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Russia-Ukraine crisis and Africa’s growing food problem

African countries are overly dependent on food imports, a disturbing scenario for a continent with 60 percent of the world’s arable land that is now battling food crisis in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. How can African countries boost food security?

Africa is a net importer of food. Data from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) indicates that Africa imported 85 percent of its food from 2016-2018, accounting for an import bill of $35 billion. It is projected that the food import bill will reach $110 billion by 2025. 

With a population of 1.2 billion people, that is expected to double to 2.5 billion by 2050, Africa’s status as the most food-insecure region in the world coupled with the tripling food import bill, is a recipe for disaster. The number of malnourished and undernourished people has been on the increase. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the number of undernourished people in Sub-Saharan Africa increased from 181 million in 2010 to 222 million in 2016. African Development Bank (AfDB) currently estimates the number of malnourished people at 234 million, that is, one in four Africans lack access to sufficient nutrients for optimal growth and health.

Structural food insecurity in African countries is associated with poor agricultural systems, poor governance, and weak institutions. The combination of low productivity, susceptibility to commodity price shocks, and overdependence on food imports, is a threat to social and political stability. 

Africa holds 60 percent of the world’s arable land and investing in agriculture will guarantee sustainable economic growth.

In a continent currently importing 85 percent of its food, a continent that is just recovering from the devastating effects of COVID-19, a pandemic that disrupted production, trade, logistics and value chains and exacerbated food price increases, the Russia-Ukraine crisis could not have arrived at the worst time.

The Russia-Ukraine situation

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), Russia and Ukraine are the world’s grain breadbaskets. Russia is the world’s largest exporter of wheat. Russia accounts for 18 percent of all international wheat exports. Together with Ukraine, the two countries account for 25.4 percent of the world’s wheat.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine coupled with the economic sanctions levied by the United States and the European Union has placed countries dependent on wheat and grain exports in dire straits. African countries import a significant proportion of grains from Russia and Ukraine. 

Data shows that African countries imported $4 billion worth of agricultural products from Russia in 2020

Data shows that African countries imported $4 billion worth of agricultural products from Russia in 2020. Wheat accounted for 90 percent of these exports, with 6 percent being sunflower oil. Countries such as Egypt, Senegal, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania, Algeria, and Kenya imported more than half of their wheat needs from Russia. 

African countries also imported agricultural products worth $2.9 billion from Ukraine. Wheat accounted for 48 percent, maize stood at 31 percent, while the rest were sunflower oil, barley, and soybeans.

East African countries imported 90 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, the World Food Programme reported.

In the long-term, African countries need to adopt strategies that can drastically reduce their overdependence on food imports

With the conflict affecting the supply chains for wheat and other grains, due to the military blockade of the Black Sea, African countries will be forced to look for alternative trade partners to alleviate short-term shortages. In the long-term, African countries need to adopt strategies that can drastically reduce their overdependence on food imports and eliminate the persistent food insecurity.

Why Africa is not producing adequate food for its people

Even though agriculture accounts for 23 percent of the GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural production remains low when compared to the rest of the world. This is in spite of the fact that Africa is home to 60 percent of unused arable land in the world. However, nine of the 44 Sub-Saharan African countries make up 60 percent of total potential, with three countries – Ethiopia, Nigeria and Tanzania – comprising half of that potential, according to an analysis by McKinsey.

Wheat Grain.

African countries have huge untapped agricultural potential, but the region continues to be arrested by production inefficiencies. Experts project that Africa has the potential to increase its agricultural productivity two to three times through yield improvement, land expansion and postharvest loss reduction. To achieve this increase, Africa needs eight times more fertilizer, six times more improved seed, and massive investments in irrigation and storage facilities. 

All is not lost. Recent analysis indicate that since 2000, Africa has recorded “the highest rate of agricultural production growth of any region of the world”. However, the growth in agricultural production has been skewed towards cash crops destined for the export market. In essence, while African countries spend billions of dollars to import the staple crops like wheat, rice, maize and soybeans, foods that go on the African plate, it grows coffee, cocoa, tea, and cotton. In recent years, the production of edible fruits, nuts and vegetables has also been increasing in response to emerging opportunities in the international market.

Agricultural financing is a persistent obstacle to exploiting Africa’s agricultural potential. Even though the Maputo Declaration of 2003 demonstrated the commitment by African countries to 10 percent of public expenditures, studies show that the proportion has stagnated at between 2-3 percent, with minimal funding for agricultural research systems. 

AfDB estimates that to make Africa a net food exporter by 2025, the continent must mobilize at least $280 – 340 billion over the next decade to transform agricultural value chains. Significant investments is the most sustainable route towards reducing over-dependence on grain imports from Russia and Ukraine.

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