Food security for Africa: An urgent global challenge

03Sep 2019
The Guardian
Food security for Africa: An urgent global challenge

In 2012, food insecurity is still a major global concern as 1 billion people are suffering from starvation, under-, and malnutrition, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) -

Africa is potentially an agricultural powerhouse. The continent has 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and could grow enough food to meet its own needs and export surpluses. Yet hundreds of millions go hungry. Despite recent progress, Africa’s farmers, most of whom are smallholders, underperform.

By Albert Sasson  -has concluded that we are still far from reaching sustainable development goal (SDG) number 1: to halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people suffering from hunger is estimated at 239 million, and this figure could increase in the near future.

There are many examples of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, some of them having reached catastrophic dimensions, for example, in the Horn of Africa or southern Madagascar. Food insecurity is not just about insufficient food production, availability, and intake, it is also about the poor quality or nutritional value of the food. The detrimental situation of women and children is particularly serious, as well as the situation among female teenagers, who receive less food than their male counterparts in the same households.

Soaring food prices and food riots are among the many symptoms of the prevailing food crisis and insecurity. Climate change and weather vagaries, present and forecast, are generally compounding food insecurity and drastically changing farming activities, as diagnosed by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) in June 2011.

The key cause of food insecurity is inadequate food production. Since the global food crisis of 2007–2008, there has been an increasing awareness throughout the world that we must produce more and better food; and we should not be derailed from this goal, despite some relief brought by the good cereal harvests in 2011–2012. This is particularly true in sub-Saharan Africa, which needs and wants to make its own green revolution.

The African challenge indeed is key to mitigating food insecurity in the world. Commitments were made by the heads of states and governments of the African Union to double the part of their domestic budgets devoted to agriculture in 2010–2011, so as to reach 10%. Technical solutions exist and there are indeed, throughout Africa, good examples of higher-yielding and sustainable agriculture.

But good practices have to spread throughout the continent, while at the same time social and economic measures, as well as political will, are indispensable ingredients of Africa’s green revolution. It is also necessary that international donors fulfil their commitment to help African farmers and rural communities and protect them against unfair trade, competition, and dumping of cheap agrifood products from overseas. Far from reaching millennium development goal number 1: to halve extreme poverty and hunger by 2015 On September 14, 2010, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published its estimates concerning the number of people suffering from hunger in 2010: 925 million. This figure was below the 1,020 billion in 2009, but it was higher than the number reached before the 2008 global food crisis.

The 2010 figure corresponded to 13.5% of the world population, while the 2015 objective (millennium development goal (MDG) number 1) was 8%. The FAO concluded that we were still far from achieving MDG 1, that is, halving the number of hungry people worldwide byIn 2010, the regional distribution of people suffering from hunger was the following: 578 million in the Asia Pacific region; 239 million in sub-Saharan Africa; 53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean; 37 million in North Africa; and 19 million in developed countries .

These figures were expected to increase due to another global food crisis in 2011, spurred by an important rise in commodity and food prices. According to the World Bank, another 44 million people living on less than US$1.25 per day had fallen into extreme poverty between June and December 2010 because of the increase in food prices.

Consequently, by early 2011, 1.2 billion people were in that situation. And on February 4, 2011, the FAO’s Director-General, Jacques Diouf, and the French agriculture minister, Bruno Le Maire, warned during a press conference against 'a real risk of a global food crisis’.

The FAO’s Director-General stressed that 'not only was there a risk, but food riots had already occurred in some regions of the world because of food price increases and governments had found themselves in a difficult situation,’ alluding to Tunisia and Egypt. The FAO’s monthly index of global food prices, which was published on the eve of the press conference, had reached another historical peak .

Olivier de Schutter, special rapporteur of the United Nations on the right to food, stated: 'If most poor countries are still very vulnerable, it is because their food security depends too much on food imports whose prices are increasingly high and volatile’. Since the 2008 food crisis, it is indeed true that volatility of food prices has become an important feature of the global situation.

That is why, according to Olivier de Schutter, the international community should respond rapidly 'by adopting regulation measures and by designing a global governance of commodity and food stocks, based on a more transparent management of the stocks every country keeps’. This crucial issue of market stability was the focus of a meeting organized by the FAO on 24 September 2010. The regulation of the markets of agricultural commodities was also a key subject of the G20 meeting organized by France in Paris in February 2011 [1].

Unfortunately, more action is needed rather than general statements, and international cooperation and solidarity must prevail over selfish national interests if we really want to eradicate such a global shame as the starvation and undernutrition of billions of people. For instance, the pledges made in L’Aquila (Italy) in 2008 are far from becoming a reality. During that G8 meeting, heads of states and governments made the commitment to gather US $22 billion (€16.8 billion) over 3 years in order to struggle against food insecurity.

Also at that time, all the countries present stressed the need to increase the proportion of agriculture-oriented investments in public aid for development, which fell from 17% in 1980 down to 3.8% in 2006, and thereafter rose to around 5%.

All of these commitments are far from becoming a reality. A US$900 million 'global program for food security’ was announced only on April 22, 2010.

It is funded by the United States, Canada, Spain, and South Korea, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also joined the program. On June 23, 2010, an amount of US$224 million was allocated to the first five beneficiaries: Bangladesh, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Togo .

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is bringing its expertise more than funds (US$30 million). As stressed by Bill Gates, the Foundation has accumulated unique experience while disbursing US$1.5 billion over 4 years (2006–2009) for activities aimed at improving food security. This area of action has become, according to Bill Gates, the other global priority urgency, 'just after health’. He added that the solution was to assist small farmers 'to increase their productivity, to find outlets and to adopt new agricultural techniques’.

Bill Gates is convinced that food security is more complex than aid to healthcare, because in that case, one needs the cooperation of local governments. Food insecurity often prevails where public infrastructures are corrupted and very backward. Bill Gates recognized that the endeavour is huge: out of the 1 billion people who live with US$1 or even less per day, 75% are in rural areas; and the US$900 million devoted to the 'global program for food security’ represent the equivalent of 1 or 2 days of subsistence for every person among the extremely poor .

In sub-Saharan Africa, food insecurity is a major concern, as shown by the following very disturbing examples.

Food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa: ExamplesMadagascar

Under the threat of starvation, the populations living in the deep south of Madagascar (Malagasy) are adopting survival strategies, such as eating seeds to be sown for the following harvests and therefore reducing the likelihood of any meaningful crops. In this remote part of the country, which has been neglected by public authorities as well as by development institutions and that has been hit by a severe drought since 2008, some 720,000 inhabitants (about 40% of the population of the three regions of Atsimo-Andrefana, Androy, and Anosy) were suffering from starvation, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The number of districts classified as 'in food difficulty’ rose to 53 in 2010, compared with 31 in 2008 and 45 in 2009. 'Even those districts which were considered granaries are now hit by food insecurity,’ as stressed by the representative of the WFP in Madagascar, Krystyna Bednarska [.

In 2010, and for the second year in sequence, rainfall was below 350 mm, and the rainy period that generally starts at the beginning of November had not yet started by the end of December. In 2009 and 2010, 80% of the maize harvest had been destroyed. In addition, the provision of drinking water was even more difficult because rivers were dry. In the region of Androy, only 7% of the population had access to drinking water .

Food prices rose: they were 50% higher in the south of Madagascar than in the rest of the country. Households were selling their livestock, considered as their asset, but which had no value in the case of extreme drought. Leaving behind women and children, men were migrating to the north of the country, where they hoped to earn more money.

In April 2011, at the peak of the intercrop season, it was forecast that some 6,700 children would suffer from severe malnutrition and would eventually die, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) representative, Bruno Maes .While the risks of severe malnutrition were increasing in that region, the number of cases of tuberculosis was rising, as well as women’s mortality during delivery, and the healthcare system was becoming increasingly ineffective.

The vaccination rate was 41% in the south of the country, compared with 88% (average) in the rest of the country. Bruno Maes stated that '87% of health centers were lacking basic medicines and 55% had no fuel to operate their refrigerators’ [5]. The non-governmental association Médecins sans Frontières (Medical Doctors without Frontiers), which had left the country in 2005 after 18 years of presence, decided to bring back a permanent team because of the gravity of the health situation.

The various donors could not cope with such a desperate situation. The WFP, which wished to raise the number of receivers of urgent assistance from 80,000 to 200,000, was seeking funds. Of the 90 health centers, 52 that UNICEF had supported over 18 months in the south of the country could close down by the end of 2010 because of lack of funds.

The Horn of Africa

Around 12 million people were suffering from starvation in the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, northeastern Kenya), stricken by the worst drought in the past 60 years, announced the FAO on July 12, 2011. A few days before, the WFP had estimated that, in this region, 10 million people needed food assistance. The Secretary-General of the United Nations called an emergency meeting with all directors of the United Nations agencies and requested member states for a more generous attitude regarding their help to the countries suffering from starvation. In fact, less than half of the US$1.6 million (€1.14 billion) needed for the assistance programme to be carried out in that region had been collected.

In northeastern Kenya, around Wajir, capital of that province, near the border with Ethiopia and Somalia, drought has been particularly severe. Trucks filled with water were brought there once a week from a neighbouring community in order to meet minimum needs for drinking water. Fifty kilometres from Wajir, in the city of Griftu, rainfall volume has been about 60% to 70% lower than the average for 1.5 years. While in October 2010, 50 children had been treated due to malnutrition, this increased to 700 in July 2011 .

Drought is not exceptional in the Horn of Africa, but 2011 was different: recurrent droughts were more frequent since the 2009 episode and plant regrowth was almost impossible. Nomadic cattle herders had to seek for farther pastures, sometimes several hundred kilometers away. They often left their families behind them without any resources. For other livestock herders, it was already too late: animals died from starvation, and their owners tried to sell them at a very low price before death occurred .

Another consequence of the very severe drought was the spike in food prices. In Wajir, the price of rice (the staple food of the local population) rose from 60 to 80 shillings (€0.64) per kilogram in 3 months, while the price of sugar doubled. The purchasing power of people has almost become nil .Development associations stated that they had warned local authorities since June 2010 about the risk of a major reduction in rainfall.

They said that nothing had been done, thinking that the situation would improve. Many were those who underlined the lack of investment and long-term planning by the Kenyan government for the northeast of the country.

They had, nevertheless, solutions in mind: limitation of the installation of sedentary people on land traditionally used by herders; convince livestock herders to sell their animals earlier, to reduce the size of their herds and flocks so as to make them more economically viable; and advocate for a diversification of their activities. But the central government seemed to focus on short-term solutions .

On July 20, 2011, 'The United Nations declared that famine existed in two regions of southern Somalia: southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle,’ as stated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia.

Both areas are controlled by Shebab insurgents. Famine is declared when over 30% of children suffer acute malnutrition, the mortality rate reaches two adults or four children per day per 10,000 people and the population has access to much less than 2,100 kcal of food per day.

'Across Somalia, nearly half of the population, 3.7 million people, were in crisis, of whom an estimated 2.8 million people were in the south,’ the United Nations’ statement read. 'Consecutive droughts have affected the country in the last few years, while the ongoing conflict has made it extremely difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south of the country,’ it added.

The relief agency Oxfam has been urging donors to provide the US$800 million desperately needed to help 10 million hungry people in the Horn of Africa. Of the estimated US$1billion needed to stave off a major humanitarian catastrophe, Oxfam stated that only around US$200 million in new money had so far been provided.

Over the 2 weeks before the United Nations’ statement, the United Kingdom had pledged an estimated US$145 million (almost 15% of what was needed), the European Union around US$8 million, Spain nearly US$10 million, and Germany around US$8.5 million.

United Nations’ officials warned that unless urgent action were taken, the areas afflicted by famine would expand, that is to all eight regions of southern Somalia, within 2 months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks.

Famine implied that at least 20% of households faced extreme food shortages, with limited ability to cope. Malnutrition rates in Somalia were the highest in the world, with peaks of 50% in certain areas of southern Somalia.

Consequently, 'every day of delay in assistance was literally a matter of life and death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas,’ said Mark Bowden, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Somalia.

Thousands of Somalis have fled to seek refuge in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya. In the latter country, they were streaming into overcrowded camps hosting some 380,000 people, more than four times their original capacity.

On July 19, 2011, the United Nations refugee agency stated that death rates among refugees arriving in Ethiopia’s Dolo Ado area had reached 7.4 deaths per 10,000 in June 2011, 15 times more than the baseline rate in sub-Saharan Africa.

Soaring world food prices had made matters worse. In Somalia, the cost of sorghum, the local staple, had risen 240% since October 2010.

In Kenya, the price of maize had tripled. Food hoarding had been reportedly aggravating shortages, even when rain had been plentiful. Parts of Kenya had a bumper harvest, leaving non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to wonder why the government’s strategic grain reserves were so low. An estimated 3.5 million Kenyans were in urgent need of food. So were 533,000 refugees in the overcrowded Dadaab camp near the border with Somalia (as of July 14, 2011).

Who is to blame? An oscillation in the climate in the form of La Niña, a cooling of the surface temperatures across the equatorial eastern-central Pacific, causing big changes in airflow and weather patterns, is likely to have contributed to the droughts. But Jane Cocking, Oxfam’s humanitarian director, stated that 'this is a preventable disaster and solutions are possible’. The worst-affected areas were also the poorest in the region. Long-term investment could have made villages and towns more resilient.

Food quality and gender inequality

In sub-Saharan Africa (and South Asia), a high proportion of female teenagers aged between 15 and 19 years are suffering from anaemia (the highest rate of 68% is registered in Mali) and weight insufficiency (47% in India), while male teenagers of the same age are suffering less from these ailments. This is one of the numerous disparities between the sexes revealed by UNICEF, published on February 25, 2011 and devoted to teenagers .

To elucidate the reasons for these disparities in the area of nutrition, an international group of researchers and nutritionists has decided to study the eating habits of more than 2,000 teenagers aged between 13 and 17 years in the south of Ethiopia, and this independently from UNICEF. Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, where more than 50% of the population was less than 18 years old in 2009 and where 85% of teenagers were living in rural areas.

Over 5 years, Tefera Belachew (University of Jimma, Ethiopia) and colleagues have interviewed families about their food habits and their health. Their study, published in January 2011, has shown that the health of boys and girls was similar in normal situations, but differed when access to healthy food becomes difficult .

Impact of soaring food prices

In 2007–2008, rocketing food prices were the most obvious symptoms of the global food crisis. They have sparked riots in many countries, which, according to an executive of an important international body attending the World Economic Forum (2008) in Davos, Switzerland, generated more concern among governments than the rise in oil and petrol prices.

At the beginning of 2011, world food prices had risen above the peak they reached in 2008, driven by rising demand in developing countries and weather vagaries, including drought in Russia and Ukraine, and a dry spell in North China. That was a time when hundreds of millions of people fell into poverty, food riots were shaking governments in many developing countries, exporters were banning grain sales abroad, and agricultural lands were purchased or rented by rich grain-importing nations in poor agricultural ones .

This time, too, there have been export bans, food riots, panic buying, and emergency price controls, just as in 2007–2008. Fears that drought might cause havoc in the wheat harvest in China, the world’s largest, have been sending shock waves through world markets.

Anger over rising bread prices has played a part in the popular uprising throughout the Middle East. There are differences between the two periods, but the fact that agriculture has experienced two big price spikes in less than 4 years suggests that something serious is rattling the global food chain  The World Bank has stated that the spike in food prices had pushed 44 million people into extreme poverty since June 2010.

The FAO warned that Mozambique, Uganda, Mali, Niger, and Somalia were extremely vulnerable to instability because of rising prices, along with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Asia, and Haiti, Guatemala, Bolivia, and Honduras in Latin America. Misguided government policies could make matters worse, such as stockpiling of food by some countries, or agricultural export bans, which discourage investment in production.

Food riots

In West Africa, in Burkina Faso (Bobo-Dioulasso), on February 20, 2008, rioters who protested against a 65% rise in the price of some foodstuffs in January burnt government buildings and looted stores. Days later, in Cameroon, a taxi drivers’ strike over fuel prices became a massive protest against soaring food prices, leaving around 20 people dead, while hundreds were arrested. In Senegal, in March 2008, police in riot gear used tear gas and beat people protesting against high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event .

In Cairo, the military was put to work baking bread as bread lines at bakeries that distribute state-subsidized bread became the scene of fights. The government feared that these fights could become the spark that ignited wider anger at a repressive government. In Yemen, food riots turned deadly, taking at least a dozen lives .

In Morocco, while trade unions warned against the degradation of consumers’ purchasing power and its implications for social peace, and a newspaper requested the authorities to ensure that food prices would not exceed some 'red lines’, people took to the streets at the end of September 2007 and clashed with the police in the city of Sefrou, located in the center of the country.

Some 50 people were wounded and dozens of food rioters were arrested. In order to prevent a country-wide massive protest, the increase in bread price was cancelled and the state had to bear the brunt of the 25% rise in the price of a loaf of bread (1.50 dirhams, or €0.14). Further to a poor cereal harvest in 2006–2007 due to a severe drought during the spring (instead of the 90 million quintals harvested in 2005–2006, only 20 million quintals were harvested in 2006–2007), Morocco had to import large quantities of soft wheat.

A striking example of food riots and popular uprisings due to the increase in food prices is that of Mozambique. In Maputo, the capital, and other cities of this southern African country, on September 1, 2010, people took to the streets after the government announced a 25% to 30% increase in the price of bread for the following week.

Shops and banks were looted, cars stoned, and roads barricaded with rocks and burning tyres during 3 days of rioting that paralyzed the capital and shut down the main airport. The riots left at least a dozen dead and more than 400 injured.

Police said they had to resort to live ammunition against protesters after running out of rubber bullets. Nearly 300 demonstrators were arrested, including nine accused of 'incitement’ for sending out mobile-phone text-messages urging people to join the protests against rising utility, transport, and food prices .

After having declared that the increase in bread price was 'irreversible’ during an extraordinary meeting, the government called off the increase and apologized, saying it had never authorized the use of lethal force.

In 2008, food riots occurred in Cameroon and Somalia, and spread through Mozambique. Inflation was endangering the life of the poorest sections of the country’s population and was also exacerbating the discontent of people against the governments.

The increase in the price of bread was not the only reason for rioting: the price of water rose 12% and that of electricity 13% just before the food riots, and a few months before the events the price of bread had been increased in a similar way. Finally, the government and trade unions had signed an agreement to raise by 50% the fare of collective minibuses .

Despite receiving billions of dollars in international aid since the end of its civil war in 1992 and having one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Mozambique remains poor and unequal. Most of its 20 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. There is almost no state welfare. The smallest rise in the cost of living can become a question of life and death.

Although the government has blamed the rise in the cost of bread on soaring global wheat prices, that was not the main factor. It had more to do with a sharp fall in the metical, Mozambique’s currency (-43% compared with South Africa’s rand, between January and September 2010), coupled with a poor harvest in the south of the country in 2010 due to drought. Despite vast swathes of potential farmland, only a small proportion is developed, as the country relies on imported food, mostly from its neighbour, South Africa .

All of these events occurred when Mozambique was welcoming investors interested in exploiting the country’s vast natural resources. For instance, according to Noticias, a newspaper close to the government, China intended to invest US$13 billion in the country.

With an economic growth of about 7% in 2010, Mozambique seemed to be making good progress towards recovery from a civil war that led to about 1 million deaths between 1976 and 1992. There were, however, serious accusations of corruption at the top of the state. Some of its decisions also seemed difficult to understand: for instance, contracts were signed to extend the areas to be cultivated with jatropha (in order to produce biodiesel from its oil) while the country had serious problems of food supply .

The government announced an 'action plan’ to cancel the rise in utility tariffs for the poorest, to reduce the price of rice and sugar, in addition to cancelling the 30% rise in bread prices forthwith. It has also promised to freeze the salaries of politicians and senior civil servants. The latest measures were to remain in force until the end of 2010. By then, the government was expected to issue a longer-term plan for economic and social stability .

Impact of climate change

Climate change and global warming are considered major threats to agriculture and food production. In 2007, the United Nations predicted that 'zones struck by drought in sub-Saharan Africa might increase from 60 million to 90 million hectares from now to 2060…’ and that 'the number of people suffering from malnutrition might increase up to 600 million from now to 2080’. On 1 February 2008, the journal Science published forecasts of Stanford University, California, which predicted that South Africa could lose more than 30% of its maize production from now to 2030 .

Catastrophic floods and severe droughts are inflicting heavy damage to sub-Saharan Africa’s ecosystems and agroecosystems, threatening the lives of tens of millions of people. For instance, on August 25, 2008, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordination in Chad announced that about 30,000 persons had been affected by floods in the south of the country. In Ethiopia, according to the Red Cross, 75,000 persons were severely hit by drought. It is not easy to correlate these events with climate change, but they enable the experts to forecast the dangers and threats of climate change in Africa, which produces only 5% of the world’s emissions of greenhouse-effect gases .

Amidst the debates on climate change, Africa is 'the forgotten continent’, as stated by Yvo Boer, Secretary-General of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, in Accra (Ghana), during an international conference on the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, which ended on August 27, 2008.

According to Ghana’s president, John Kufuor, Africa was already suffering from 'climate shocks’: in his country, rainfall has decreased by 20% over the past 30 years. This rainfall decrease has been confirmed, on a greater scale, by German and African scientists during a symposium held in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) on August 26, 2008: the rainfall season in West Africa starts 30 days later than 40 years ago.

According to the research programme Glawo, which was the subject of the Ouagadougou seminar, a 'considerable warming’ was expected in Africa as well as a 'remarkable’ reduction in rainfall in sub-Saharan Africa and along the southern rim of the Mediterranean from now to 2050.

These forecasts confirm those of the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change, published in 2007. The Group’s report forecast a 5% to 8% extension of arid and semi-arid lands from now to 2080, an increase in the number of people suffering from lack of water from now to 2020, and worsening difficulties for agriculture that could halve agricultural production in some countries .

The elevation of sea level could also affect coastal countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, and Gambia; Stefan Cramer, of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, who attended the conference in Accra, underlined the impact that would be felt particularly in the deltas, where populations are dense. For instance,

Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital, with 15 million inhabitants, would be seriously affected; several districts of the city that are situated below sea level are already regularly flooded. This overall situation is compounded by the increase in population growth and by the lack of resources.

According to the United Nations Division of Population, the number of people living in Africa would rise from 922 million in 2005 to 1,998 million in 2050. While economic growth has been rather high over the past few years (6.2% in 2007, according to the Economic Report on Africa by the United Nations and the African Union), public aid from the rich countries was slumping (-8.4% in 2007, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD);