Improving Africa's Resilience: Regional Food Security Overview

Africa south of the Sahara currently faces a range of shocks - from civil conflict to increasing incidence of transboundary plant and animal pests and diseases to climate-related shocks stemming from both climate change and recent El Niño and La Niña weather phenomena. According to the most recent edition of FAO’s “Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in Africa”, taken together, these shocks pose a threat to recent progress made in the region to attain food and nutrition security. In fact, several countries (Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria) are now facing famine conditions as a result of conflict- and climate-related shocks. The challenge now for African governments and development partners is how to build populations’ resilience to these ongoing shocks and stresses.

The report begins with a look at the prevalence and trends of food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa south of the Sahara. To do so, it utilizes a new tool to track food security and nutritional status: the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES). FIES is an experience-based measure of the severity of food insecurity based on individuals’ direct responses to a questionnaire regarding their access to adequate food supplies. This methodology differs from, for example, the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which uses nationally and regionally available data to computer standardized hunger scores for each country based on four components (undernourishment, child wasting, child stunting, and child mortality). When used in combination with other metrics, such as the GHI, the FIES tool can give another perspective on food insecurity at the individual level. 

The FIES tool looks at the prevalence of undernourishment and the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity in representative samples of national populations in over 145 countries in 2014 and 2015. Estimates of food insecurity are based on individuals’ self-reported experience over a 12-month period. Individual responses are used to produce national and regional estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity, which are then calibrated to a global reference standard to make them comparable across countries. Severe levels of food insecurity are associated with being hungry but unable to eat or going for an entire day without eating due to lack of money or other resources.

According to the FIES estimates, around 7.5 percent of the global population over 15 years of age experienced severe food insecurity in 2014-2015. In Africa south of the Sahara, this number reached 26 percent, the highest in the world. Regionally, the lowest prevalence of severe food insecurity was found in southern Africa (20 percent) and western Africa (23 percent). Middle Africa and eastern Africa have severe food insecurity rates higher than the regional average, at 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Reductions in hunger and improvements in nutritional status in these latter two sub-regions has been hindered in recent years by conflict, civil unrest, and challenges resulting from climate change. Central African Republic, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria have been particularly hard hit.

Africa’s food production has remained stagnant over the past five years, and the region’s agricultural productivity remains very low, particularly for staple cereal crops. Therefore, many countries in the region have become net food importers, depending heavily on global food markets. According to FAO, between 1980 and 2010, Africa south of the Sahara relied on imports to fill 15-20 percent of its cereal supplies. Some countries have become even more strongly dependent on imports, such as Botswana, Cabo Verde, and Mauritius, relying on imports to fill more than 80 percent of their cereal requirements. In 2008, Africa’s food imports as a region reached a record $50 billion. These high food import bills place a heavy burden on national budgets, taking money away from other important development agendas without really resolving long-term food insecurity.  The report emphasizes that increasing trade within the region itself could be key in ending Africa’s reliance on food imports from global markets and allow the continent to better ensure its own food security. Recent efforts to increase intra-regional trade and strengthen regional integration have focused on how more liberalized trade regional trade agreements can help the region reduce its dependence on imports.

Poverty levels in the region, while on the decline in recent years, remain the highest in the world. This puts pressure on food accessibility (i.e. the ability to have sufficient resources to obtain an adequate, nutritious diet). The report cites the World Bank’s Domestic Food Price Index, which measures the relative price of food items in overall household consumption basket. This index was 6.0 in 2013 for Africa, meaning that food prices were around six times higher than the price of non-food items. At the same time, the average per capita income in the region was $3,400 in 2014 - three times lower than that of Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, and much lower than the world average of $14,500. Lower per capita income and higher food prices both drastically reduce households’ purchasing power.

Africa still also suffers from the triple burden of malnutrition – undernutrition, micronutrient deficiency, and overweight/obesity. One in three children under the age of five remains stunted in the region, and approximately 154 million children under five suffer from wasting. At the same time, five percent of the under-five population in the region are overweight, increasing their risk of non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Driving much of the region’s food insecurity and malnutrition are natural disasters such as severe droughts and floods and persistent political instability, conflicts, and other forms of violence. According to the report, an estimated 75-250 million people in Africa will be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change by 2020. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could decrease by as much as 50 percent by the same year, drastically reducing populations’ access to food and further driving up food insecurity and malnutrition. Adapting to climate change will be costly – the African Development Bank estimates that climate change adaptation costs will be $20–30 billion per year over the next two decades.

To address these challenges, 30 African countries have produced climate policy frameworks such as the National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA) and Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). In addition, there have been established numerous regional policies and programs designed to take a broader, cross-border approach. These include the AU/NEPAD program on agriculture and climate change, which was guided by the 2014 Malabo Declaration; this program aims to enhance the resilience of Africa’s livelihoods and production systems by scaling up climate-smart agriculture in the region.

Civil conflict has also been ongoing in several parts of the region. These conflicts are particularly harmful for rural populations, as they damage agriculture, displace food-producing households, disrupt food production and food systems, and cause loss of rural households’ assets and incomes. Efforts to improve populations’ resilience in this regard have focused on increasing peace-building efforts and scaling up monitoring in conflict-affected areas to make sure that humanitarian assistance can reach populations in need in a timely manner.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie