The issue of food security has been on the front burner for long. Statements have been made about several countries in Africa that are food-insecure. We have been confronted with horrific photographs of starving children in countries lying on the Horn of Africa, countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, some parts of Kenya, among others. These frightening photographs depict an avoidable disaster. Africa’s agricultural system is backward, and worsened by high global food prices.
In Nigeria, food accounts for a large, and increasing, share of family budgets for poor and urban families. If prices of staple foods soar, poor people bear the brunt. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), an agency of the United Nations (UN), once raised alarm that Nigeria, Morocco and Bangladesh faced imminent food crisis. The report stated that the world food situation was in dire straits.
Though this is the typical picture of what Africa is, hope is not lost; Africa can help to feed itself. Africa, over the years, has relied on food imports to feed its population. This, coupled with rising global food prices, brings about ever-mounting food import bills. For instance, with demand outstripping domestic production, West Africa is a major and expanding rice import market. West Africa accounts for almost 20 percent of world rice imports, amounting to 6.3 million tons in 2008.
The main importing countries are Senegal, Nigeria, and Côte d’Ivoire. Benin officially imports as much as 800,000 tons of rice in some years; but the bulk of these imports are parboiled rice, which is trans-shipped via Cotonou to Nigeria through informal channels. In fact, Akinwunmi Adesina, Agriculture and Rural Development minister, on assumption of office, cried out at Nigeria’s alarming import bill which is increasing at 11 percent per annum.
The World Bank, in a report published in October 2012, holds that the structure currently on ground is unsustainable. There is a solution, and it comes from within Africa. Through regional trade, Africa’s farmers have the potential to meet much of the rising demand, while providing substitutes for more expensive imports from the global market.
This potential is unexploited. African farmers face more trade barriers in accessing the inputs they need, and more trade constraints in getting their food to consumers in African cities than do suppliers from the rest of the world. Thus, African farmers now provide only 5 percent of Africa’s imports of cereals.
Open regional trade is vital, especially as demand for staples becomes more concentrated in cities which must rely on food production from throughout the continent. Different seasons and rainfall patterns, and variability in production, which will increase as climate change continues, are not confined to national borders. A food security model based on national self-sufficiency cannot work.
Regulatory barriers to trade and competition along the whole value chain must be removed; institutions need to be overhauled by investing in their capacity to make staples markets efficient and stable. Concurrently, political economy issues that constrain open regional trade must be addressed.