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African solutions to world food supply problems

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African solutions to world food supply problems

The ongoing war in Ukraine, unpredictable rainfall patterns, and supply chains disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic are all conspiring to put Africa’s food security under tremendous strain. But Africa is actually a net exporter of agricultural products and with some tweaking, could not only become self-sufficient in food but be able to export a sizeable surplus. Neil Ford explains how.

The African continent is facing a perfect storm of food insecurity. The war in Ukraine is preventing exports from one of the world’s most important food exporters and supply chains are struggling to recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, while African producers face increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns as a result of global warming. 

The solutions are partly global, in terms of ending the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports and stepping up international efforts to tackle climate change, but there is still much that can be done in Africa itself to improve food supplies.

Moscow blames the spike in global food prices on Western sanctions but the general consensus is that it is the war in Ukraine that is exacerbating existing difficulties. Global systems were already under pressure before the war, with prices rising dangerously in late 2021 as it proved remarkably difficult to smooth out production and supply chain difficulties even where Covid-related restrictions were lifted. 

The price of bread wheat increased by 22% in the third quarter of 2020 to $271/ton in the same period one year later, but jumped to $389/ton one week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The latter usually exports 5m tons of grain a month but ships have been unable to export any of it from the country’s ports because of Russian naval vessels operating offshore.

About half of all African countries import more than a third of their wheat requirements, while 14 source more than half of their wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia. The war is already impacting costs, with average wheat prices rising by more than a quarter in the first six weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Such rises will place huge pressure on the finances of the poorest African households. 

Malnutrition rates look certain to rise as global supplies are constrained by the lack of Ukrainian exports, with famine a real possibility. Food supply problems and rising prices can also lead to security problems, both in the form of violent localised protests and even widespread armed conflict, with general grievances fuelled by the issues.

Intense work by Western diplomats to release grain stored at Ukrainian ports demonstrates the anticipated severe impact on global food supplies. The Turkish government in particular is working to establish a safe corridor for grain exports that would not require mines to be cleared from around Ukrainian ports. 

In addition, Washington has proposed building temporary silos on the Ukraine-Poland border to enable exports by land through Poland, but it would take at least three months to put all of the necessary infrastructure in place. It is currently difficult to export Ukrainian foodstuffs by land because the Ukrainian railway network has a wider gauge than systems further west. As a result, grain and other commodities must be unloaded and then reloaded at the border.

Local solutions

These challenges have emerged just as African governments, farmers and other stakeholders are attempting to adapt existing agricultural structures to cope with global warming. Temperatures are expected to rise more quickly in Africa, particularly in the south of the continent, than in the world as a whole. 

It is forecast that a 3°C rise in temperatures will reduce the growing areas for beans by 60% and for bananas and maize by 30% by 2050. Estimates vary but it is generally reckoned that the costs of climate adaptation will be lower than the cost of disaster relief and emergency food responses.

Food production needs to rise rapidly across the continent, not just to increase resilience to interruptions to global supplies and improve food security but also to cope with Africa’s rapidly growing population. 

Although fertility rates have begun to fall, it will take several generations before populations stabilise. Nigeria’s population alone is forecast to reach 790m by 2100. Those less acquainted with the African agricultural sector may be surprised to learn that the continent is actually a net food exporter, importing $43bn less than it exported in 2020. Much of its exports take the form of tea, coffee, sugar, palm oil and fruit, with cereal imports and processed goods dominating imports.

African governments have responded in different ways. Nigeria and Ethiopia restrict wheat exports and control domestic prices, while Malawi and Zambia are giving monthly payments to help those least able to pay higher food bills. 

Yet this is a difficult time for African governments to intervene with financial support. Already stretched finances have been badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated restrictions, while huge increases in fuel import costs are adding to the strain. The international community needs to step in to provide financial support to help cushion the impact of the war on the most vulnerable people in Africa. 

Such emergency measures are needed to get through the ongoing crisis but in the longer term there is much that can be done to make African food supplies more resilient to international shocks. As a result of the triple challenges of the war in Ukraine, Covid and global warming, it is now more urgent than ever to strengthen food security. 

Part of the problem lies with the general efficiency and effectiveness of global trade in basic foodstuffs. Rising production and export capacity elsewhere in the world meant that it was often cheaper for African countries to import food from outside the continent than to produce it themselves. 

As a result, previously self-sufficient states have become substantial net importers since independence. This can make economic sense during stable years but is a poor strategy in terms of food security. Turning this around during years of rapid population growth will not be an easy process but it is possible.

First of all, more efficient practices can greatly increase African harvests, not least because the continent has 60% of the world’s arable land, according to the World Economic Forum. Some progress has been made on adopting new seed strains and increasing soil nitrogen and phosphorous application rates but these can be stepped up. 

However, particularly because of the impact of climate change, there needs to be far more widespread adoption of irrigation storage and distribution systems. The African continent as a whole has sufficiently warm climates to enable multiple crops every year but the big weakness lies in water supplies.

Secondly, there needs to be much greater trade in food between African countries. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was created to greatly increase cross-border trade but implementing it will be a long process. 

Regulatory changes with no direct costs can play a big role, as governments ensure that tariffs on food imports are eroded and then removed. Financing improved cross-border transports links will be more difficult. 

When African governments have so many short-term demands on their finances, it can be particularly difficult to justify the construction of a new road or railway between neighbouring African states in anticipation of trade volumes that may take many years to realise.

It is understandable that some governments have introduced restrictions on food imports as a result of the current crisis but in the longer term, continent-wide free trade in foodstuffs is necessary. It would encourage the private sector to invest in new projects, safe in the knowledge that higher production can not only be sold to a domestic market of 10, 20 or 30m people but to an entire continent of 1bn, or 2bn by the end of the century. It is essential if the continent is to achieve food security.

The private sector

Finally, the private sector can play a bigger role. Agro-business supply chains have improved in recent years but much greater investment is needed to ensure that it is cheaper to produce food and agricultural inputs locally than to import them from other parts of the world, even when shipping costs are taken into account. 

Morocco could step into the breach with regard to fertilisers. It is already the world’s fourth biggest fertiliser exporter, but its biggest producer, Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), is preparing to massively ramp up its own production capacity. It will boost its own output by 1.2m tons this year, equal to 10% of its annual production, followed by a 7m tons/year or 58% increase between 2023 and 2026. 

Adding so much production to global supplies will ease procurement and price worries worldwide, while much of the fertiliser is likely to be marketed within Africa given that OCP has set up subsidiaries in a dozen African countries over the past six years. It is investing $6.3bn in building fertiliser plants in sub-Saharan Africa, including $1.4bn and $1.3bn plants in Nigeria and Ghana respectively.

Any additional production this year will be much welcomed. It is feared that the war in Ukraine could affect fertiliser supplies, as Russia is the world’s biggest fertiliser exporter and constrained gas supplies to European producers have seen some factories cease their operations entirely. 

Average annual fertiliser use in Africa has risen from 8kg/hectare in 2006 to perhaps as high as 19kg/hectare in 2020 but even this is well below the African Union’s target of 50kg/hectare, while it has been reported that use fell dramatically in 2021 and this year. Rising gas prices had already driven fertiliser prices sky high before the war, with the price of ammonia rising from $110/ton in November 2020 to $1,000/ton one year later.

Important role of conglomerates 

Conglomerates such as Olam have a big role to play in direct investment, in supporting technology and knowledge transfer, and in ensuring that as much of their investment as possible is targeted at supporting food chains that focus on African consumers rather than products primarily destined for overseas markets. In addition, the Singaporean company has also pledged to make its palm oil production more sustainable. 

Even big global companies are being affected by the war. Part of Olam Group, Olam Food Ingredients (OFI), had planned an initial public offering of a 35% stake on the London Stock Exchange for the second quarter of this year but has now postponed it because of uncertain market conditions. 

It is, however, pushing ahead with the sale of a 35.4% stake in another offshoot, Olam Agri to Saudi firm SALIC for $1.24bn. The money will be used to strengthen the company’s finances. Olam Group CEO, Sunny Verghese said: “Secondary placement for Olam Agri would lead to an immediate unlocking of value for our shareholders, set a benchmark valuation for future IPO and demerger of Olam Agri.”

In June, Olam launched its new climate tech company Terrascope to provide a carbon measurement platform to companies operating in a variety of sectors, including agriculture and food & beverage production. The software is designed to enable companies to accurately measure and then reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Africa’s overall contribution to global emissions is far lower than all other parts of the world but its agricultural emissions are significant and rising quickly.

The firm has also launched the annual Olam Food Prize to promote innovation in African agriculture. The 2021 prize was awarded to a joint venture of the Green Rodent Consortium in the Netherlands and Ethiopia’s Rodent Research Unit, which researched traditional African methods of deterring depredation of crops by rats. They are attempting to promote the wider use of plants found to deter rats in agricultural areas. It is estimated that rats account for 25% of all crop field losses in Africa.

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