Windhoek-President Hage Geingob’s call on African leaders to reduce their reliance on imports not only caught the attention of the international community, but it seems to have come at just the right time.
Geingob’s plea comes in the wake of the African Development Bank (ADB)’s prediction that the continent’s food imports will soar to a staggering US$110 billion by 2025. The president of the ADB, Akinwumi Adesina, says Africa has the potential to feed itself and even have surplus food to export to other parts of the world. But instead, the continent imports US$35 billion worth of food and agricultural products every year, and if the current predictions hold, the import bill will rise to US$110 billion annually by 2025. “So the question is: if the African continent has vast agricultural potential as we have been led to believe, why are we facing an astronomical food import bill?” he adds.
Adesina made the remarks while speaking at the Centre for Global Development in Washington DC: “Africa’s annual food import bill of US$35 billion, estimated to rise to US$110 billion by 2025, weakens African economies, decimates its agriculture, and exports jobs from the continent. Africa’s annual food import bill of US$35 billion is just about the same amount it needs to close its power deficit.”
According to Adesina, to rapidly support Africa to diversify its economies, and revive its rural areas, “we have prioritised agriculture. We are taking action. The bank has committed US$24 billion towards agriculture in the next ten years, with a sharp focus on food self-sufficiency and agricultural industrialization.”
Clearly the AfDB chief is very concerned, and so he should be. With the latest food crises in East Africa (South Sudan and Somalia), there is a strange feeling that we may be about to repeat the scenario of two years ago when the United Nations declared that nearly 2.5 million people in the Sahel belt were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, particularly food. At the time, the UN and other organisations campaigned to raise more than US$2 billion to feed people from countries such as Sudan and the Central African Republic.
The situation varies from one country to another, and you cannot point to a stand-alone reason to explain why many nations on the African continent, including Namibia, have continuously struggled to guarantee food supply let alone export agricultural products beyond coffee and tea despite the potential to do so. Generally speaking, there are interlinking factors that can help explain the inability for Africa to fulfil her potential. For instance, in a 2011 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO): Why has Africa become a net food importer, it puts forward five reasons they believe have hindered African countries the most from realising their full potential of self-sufficiency. They are: population growth, low and stagnating agricultural productivity, policy distortions, weak institutions, and poor infrastructure.
Nonetheless, while some of the limitations pointed out above could indeed be somewhat challenging to deal with especially when you consider the continent’s financial limitations, population growth, conflicts, climate change and so on, other challenges have also played a major part. These are, among others, primitive agricultural methods, policy distortions, weak institutions, poor infrastructure and poor governance, all of them which are manageable problems that can be addressed swiftly with the little financial means available.
A shift from primitive agricultural methods to more mechanised, technical and commercial-led principles is crucial today more than ever before. Africans must take the initiative and apply technology-led methods to improve the production cycle – including harvest, storage, processing and export. In fact, with the right technical assistance, agriculture production would improve if many practitioners saw it as not just a subsistence vocation but also a profit-generating one. Undeniably, there must be a change of perceptions, especially among young people that agriculture is a primitive economic activity that employs the less educated and/or rural population alone. More young people should be encouraged to explore the dividends of agribusiness.
Several countries have not fully embraced the idea of trading with one another despite the potential to fill existing gaps. It is understood that although food crises continue to be reported in parts of Africa almost daily, in many other African countries they have food surplus and are willing and able to trade with other African countries at reasonable prices, provided that trade barriers and other obstacles, such as corruption, are eliminated.
With better intra-African trade frameworks in place, however, corn surplus from Malawi could have been easily sold in Namibia where 600 000 people were dependent on government’s drought aid food last year. While some factors are quite challenging to deal with (for instance drought conditions that have been exacerbated by climate change), there are many other man-made causes that continue to worsen Africa’s food security despite the immense risks that can spring out of that insecurity. The lives of 20 million Africans will be at risk in the next five years. There must be concern, followed by actions.