Africa’s agricultural revolution is needed now more than ever

Commercial ships across the world are becalmed due to COVID-19. Collapsing international trade means sea transportation is increasingly uneconomic with the result that ships remain tied up in harbour. Every month around 100,000 seafarers working in crews need to be changed which presents significant health risks. Many crews are refusing to go to affected areas and at ports around the world loading and unloading of cargo is being delayed and reduced.

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the world’s largest importers of food and the resilience of its food supply chain will be severely strained by any seizing up of international shipping. Africa has an annual food import bill of $35 billion, supplying its population with commodities such as maize, rice and wheat. Any reduction in imports could add to food insecurity. This is already at a critical level due to recent drought and famine experienced in countries such as South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda which, according the African Development Bank (AfDB), means 20 million people are facing food insecurity and severe malnutrition.

There are no easy answers for Africa. Many Governments are unable to borrow on world markets to implement the protection packages for people and businesses seen in the global north. Those countries reliant on oil and gas revenues have been hit by the fall in the oil price. Health systems are generally poorly equipped to deal with the pandemic. The millions of people living in slums and informal settlements makes social distancing impractical and huge numbers working in the informal economy need to go out every day to survive which means a lockdown would see people starving at home.

AfDB’s two most important priorities to fast-track Africa’s economic potential are to improve the power sector and increase agriculture. According to the bank, Africa’s annual food import bill of $35 billion is coincidently the same amount it needs to close its power deficit.

Many in Africa are hopeful that the pandemic could accelerate the continent’s much needed agricultural revolution and allow Africa to feed itself rather than rely on imports.The pandemic increases the urgency for African governments to put in place policies that support their agriculture and food supply chains.

For example, reviewing inter-African country tariffs and trade restrictions on food and feed supplies. Targeting overseas aid to increase the use of fertilizer, buy more productive seeds, increase irrigation measures and invest in storage and transportation links that reduce food waste and improve distribution to urban and rural populations.

Now is the time also to make the most of advantages Africa has such as a young population. With an average age of 19.4, many people can be supported to work on the land and throughout the food supply chain. Also Africa’s well developed mobile money, mobile data and phone network and high mobile-phone penetration can facilitate cashless trading of commodities, improve social connection, create credit ratings among farmers for micro loans and provide climatic data helpful for planting and harvesting.

Agricultural transformation is long overdue for Africa. Focusing limited resources now on building a more resilient food supply chain covering production, storage, distribution, processing, packaging and retailing is a priority for the entire world community, not just African leaders.