Unleashing Africa’s Agricultural Potential: Seizing Challenges as Opportunities

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Agriculture in Africa: A Transformative Force

The heart of Africa beats with the rhythm of agriculture. This sector plays a pivotal role, touching the lives of millions and shaping the economic landscape of the continent. Employment opportunities, which account for up to 60% of the gross domestic product in various African nations, predominantly rely on agriculture. Additionally, it contributes approximately 30% to the value of exports across the continent.

Traditionally, agriculture in Africa has been characterised by subsistence farming, with the exception of countries like South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Kenya, which have embraced more advanced farming techniques. The prevalent practice of shifting agriculture involves temporary land cultivation with rudimentary tools, followed by abandonment to allow the soil to rejuvenate.

Historically, Africa’s arable land has been distributed through communal ownership and tenure systems rather than individual titles. This structure has hindered agricultural productivity and modernization due to the fragmentation of land holdings.

Transforming the food system

Over the last decade, Africa’s food systems have witnessed a transformation spurred by economic growth, rising incomes, an expanding middle class, urbanization, globalization, and digitization. These factors have led to shifting consumer preferences and increased demand for food. These changes affect food production, distribution, and allocation, offering a host of opportunities.

Agriculture, encompassing cultivation, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, and processing, can stimulate economic growth, generate jobs, and bolster tax revenue. This sector plays a pivotal role in fostering economic development and change across Africa.

The 2023 UN Food Systems Summit in Rome, Italy, aimed to address the challenges posed by current food systems, which exacerbate inequality and fail to combat hunger and malnutrition. Biodiversity loss, pollution, and carbon emissions further threaten the foundations of food systems. This underscores the urgency for food systems transformation, as highlighted in the Secretary-General’s Call-to-Action by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed.

Numerous scientific studies indicate that food systems globally are negatively impacting climate change, biodiversity, diets, and the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and urban populations. The prevailing policies that have governed the food industry in the past century are no longer suitable. The need for food system transformation is more critical than ever.

Food system transformation involves a radical shift in the goals, laws, and hierarchies of the current food system. It challenges the conventional notion of what is considered “normal” and necessitates change in various aspects. It will undoubtedly have winners and losers, whether driven intentionally or by societal change. Rethinking the primary objectives of food systems is a fundamental part of this transformation.

Today, food systems are expected to provide not only adequate nutrition but also sufficient incomes for all involved in the food value chain while simultaneously adhering to environmentally responsible practices. This shift in perspective is essential for the future of food systems.

Addressing challenges and seizing opportunities

1. Inefficient Food Production: Industrialised food systems often compromise human health, social cohesion, and cultural traditions due to their reliance on fossil fuels and harmful chemical inputs. A shift towards agroecology and regenerative ecological practices can enhance human and environmental well-being.
2. Climate Challenge: Food systems are responsible for about 30% of global emissions, making climate change a significant concern. Properly managed, efforts to combat climate change can increase food security and nutrition while promoting carbon sequestration and biodiversity.
3. Health Crisis: Transforming food systems is vital to promoting public health. Harmful practices, such as the marketing of ultra-processed foods and global commodity supply chains, have detrimental health effects. New narratives, policies, and business models must be developed to improve human, ecological, and animal health.

The hidden costs and negative effects of food systems, including habitat destruction and soil erosion, are often overlooked. To transform food systems, we must change the metrics used to evaluate them and consider factors like carbon sequestration, pollination, disaster resilience, and community well-being.

African governments can drive food system reform through policies focused on infrastructure development, financing, science and technology, and capacity building. Innovations in science, technology, and policy offer exciting opportunities to reshape the African food system, fostering nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability. It’s time for Africa to embrace its agricultural potential and lead the way towards a sustainable and prosperous future.


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