In January 2022 a jointly published report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations warned that acute food insecurity in 20 countries, identified as hunger hotspots, was likely to deteriorate in the months ahead.
Demographically, a whopping majority of the hunger hotspots are located in Africa with the continent also accounting for 3 out of the 4 countries; Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen where immediate humanitarian actions are needed to prevent starvation and death. Without mincing words, this has been the part of Africa the world knows too well – For decades, Africa has been plagued with high incidence of hunger, a condition that could certainly be prevented, if germane measures are undertaken.
Africa is home to abundant agricultural resources that could produce more than enough food to feed the region’s bulging population; but sadly, the reality on the continent has been gut-wrenching – a report (2021) from FAO shows that as of 2020; more than one-third of Africa’s population, representing 282 million people were undernourished, an uptick of 46 million over 2019. In other words, one in five people in Africa are experiencing hunger. Evidently, the region has been characterised by hunger for decades, with actions intended to ameliorate this condition yielding minimal progress. But with Africa’s population growing rapidly, perhaps this should be the opportune duration to right the wrongs.
What is the reality on the ground? Countries across the continent have repeatedly indicated that they are not up to the task when the goal is to unlock the full potential of agricultural resources in the region, a deficiency that has pushed Africa, a continent that has more than enough natural resources to be food sufficient to become a net importer of food. With 60 percent of the entire world’s unused arable land, in fact, it is quite astounding that Africa is a net importer of food. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), from 2016 to 2018, Africa imported nearly 85 percent of its food from outside the continent, an increasing food import bill that could exceed US$110 billion by 2025.
Obviously, Africa’s excessive reliance on food imports has been anything but the solution to ending hunger and clearly, food aid to the region has also not been the panacea. Why so? While the region depends on food aid significantly, it is interesting to know that postharvest losses in Africa far exceeds the food aid the continent receives – in 2011, the World Bank and FAO jointly published a report that estimated that the value of grain postharvest losses alone in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) amounted to US$4 billion a year out of an annual grain production of US$27 billion for 2005 – 2007.
To put this into perspective; the monetary value of the yearly grain postharvest losses exceeded the total food aid SSA received from 1998 to 2008 (10 years) which was US$6.1 billion. Again, the US$4 billion grain postharvest loss equates to the annual value of cereal imports of SSA, which ranged from US$3-7 billion per year from 2000 to 2007 period and lastly, the postharvest grain loss could have met the minimum annual food requirement of 48 million people in Africa. While this ample empirical evidence is limited to losses for grains in SSA, one could only imagine the entire value of postharvest losses for livestock, fruits and vegetables which are not included here.
To further delve into this subject, in 2014, FAO indicated that losses for SSA’s essential staples such as cassava, banana, plantain and yams were 30 to 40 percent and 40 percent for vegetables – In fact, while this situation is worrying, the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters even worse.
Several restrictive measures such as lockdowns and travel restrictions adopted by African governments to curb the spread of COVID-19 has been a blessing and a curse as it has contributed significantly in increasing postharvest losses as farmers are not able to transport their harvested foods to the markets – In 2020, the FAO representative in Senegal reported that nearly a million chickens and about 18,000 tonnes of vegetables, including, 550 tonnes of cabbages, 566 tonnes of carrots, 13,000 tonnes of onion, had piled up in the country due to COVID-19 related travel restrictions. Similar concerns were raised in Guinea and Nigeria where postharvest losses for potato was between 20 and 50 percent.
Pineapple, potato and cashew nut growers in Guinea had to destroy their unsold harvests because these farmers could not access adequate storage facilities. Cash crop growers have also experienced their share of postharvest losses – In Ivory Coast, the world’s leading kola nut exporter, about 500 tonnes of kola nut losses were attributed to COVID-19 travel restrictions (border closures).
All this evidence points to the fact that the sustainable solution needed to end hunger in Africa does not lie in soliciting for more food aid or increasing food imports but rather addressing postharvest losses which includes strengthening agriculture development and building climate-resilient infrastructure to tackle food losses across the value chains in the region. For example, in February, 2022 the WFP announced that 13 million people are experiencing severe hunger in the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia), as severe drought clutches the peninsula. With the Horn of Africa currently facing the driest conditions recorded since 1981, the area has now experienced three consecutive failed rainy seasons which has annihilated crops and livestock – widespread water and pasture shortages are compelling people to flee their homes, a situation that has increased conflicts pushed many into poverty and increased hunger substantially.
Similarly, in other parts of the continent, climate change, poverty and conflicts, the primary causes of hunger now exacerbated by COVID-19, could be largely addressed via agriculture development. What is the way forward? Certainly, the solution to these challenges requires building colossal climate-resilient infrastructure and enhancing agricultural development, all of which demands massive funding and technical expertise that unfortunately the continent does not have at the moment. The success of this pathway is partly dependent on African countries engaging reliable partners that have demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that they are committed to the development of the continent. Current infrastructure investment trends in Africa, shows that China is by far the continent’s largest foreign investor; these investments which are mostly skewed towards energy and transport infrastructure projects are addressing the region’s power and transport challenges.
With more investments in renewable energy projects in Africa, China’s contributions are essential for promoting an inclusive and efficient agricultural value chain. While this is a step in the right direction in the fight against hunger, additional efforts should be directed towards building affordable and accessible food storage facilities to mitigate postharvest losses in both rural and urban areas and providing adequate infrastructure to support climate-resilient agriculture.
Alexander is an economic consultant, chartered economist