How Africa Can Respond to Challenges of Climate Change, High Food Imports, Growing Young Population

This week, the FAO held its 29th Regional Conference for Africa (ARC) in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. The conference, a biennial event, provides a platform for policymakers and stakeholders to discuss agricultural development in the region, with the aim of promoting regional cooperation and coherent policies. This year’s session focused on the theme of “Transforming African Agri-Food Systems for Inclusive Growth and a Shared Prosperity.” The event was attended by government ministers and other high-level delegates from FAO member states, partner organizations, and representatives from African civil society organizations and media outlets.

One of the documents discussed during the conference was “Trends and Issues in Food and Agriculture for National and Regional Action in the Context of the SDGs.” The document reviews recent global food security and agriculture trends and discusses how these trends have impacted, and will likely continue to impact, food security and agriculture in the region.

Three major recent global developments were highlighted as important to agriculture and food policy both regionally and globally: (i) the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for a universal Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development adopted in September 2015 at the United Nations in New York, (ii) the Paris Agreement adopted as an outcome of the UN Global Climate Change Conference (COP21), which aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, and (iii) The Rome Declaration on Nutrition and the Framework for Action adopted by the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2) in 2014, which calls for actions and renewed global commitments to eradicate malnutrition in all its forms.

Regionally, the establishment of the Malabo Declaration in 2014 links Africa’s inclusive growth and sustainable development goals to those laid out in the SDCs, but with the even more ambitious timeframe of 2025. Specifically, the Declaration mirrors specific SDGs through the following commitments: to the principles and values of the CAADP process (SDG1, 2), to enhancing investment finance in agriculture (SDG2), to ending hunger in Africa by 2025 (SDG2), to halving poverty by 2025 through inclusive agricultural growth and transformation (SDG1), to boosting intra-African trade in agricultural commodities and services (SDG2), to enhancing resilience of livelihoods and production systems to climate variability and other climate-related risks (SDG13), and mutual accountability to assist African countries in reaching the targets under these respective SDGs.

The report also lays out some regional trends that will impact these commitments, including food loss due to pests and disease; climate change; lack of electrification; youth employment and urbanization; and dependence on food imports.

According to the report,  post-harvest losses as a result of pest and disease is exceptionally high in Africa because the region suffers from many pervasive pest and disease species that impact staple crops, livestock, fisheries, and forestry activities. In addition, the region does not have well-functioning pest and disease monitoring systems or coherent mechanisms with which to respond to outbreaks, instead relying on ineffective policies like export bans to prevent the spread of pest and disease. This can be very costly for the region’s agricultural sector; for example, the report estimates that Ghana loses US$ 230 million in export revenues every year as the result of export bans to prevent the spread of fruit flies. The goals of ending hunger and poverty and boosting regional trade will both require that both transboundary pest and disease control and the related issue of pest- and disease-related food are addressed in a more comprehensive, coherent manner.

In addition to pests and disease, Africa’s population and ecosystems are particularly prone to natural disasters and climate change-driven weather shocks, with Africa’s Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the Sahel, and the Horn of Africa the most vulnerable, according to the report. The economic cost of rising sea levels is estimated by the African Development Bank to reach US$ 45-50 billion annually by 2040, and up to 7 percent of Africa’s annual GDP by 2100, as a result of losses in the agriculture, tourism, health, energy, and fishery sectors. Thus, dealing with climate change and environmental issues will be critical to achieving the commitments of both the Malabo Declaration and the SDGs. Several ongoing initiatives have been launched to encourage the uptake of climate-smart agricultural practices, including the Africa Climate Smart Agriculture Alliance. The report also encourages policymakers to view the challenges of climate change as opportunities to drive economic growth in the region. For example, increasing investment (both public and private) in green technologies and new climate-smart agricultural technologies can spur innovation and job creation, improving livelihoods and sustainability at the same time.

Over 75 percent of Africa’s population does not have electricity, and 81 percent rely on traditional biomass fuels such as charcoal and firewood, which bring with them health and environmental risks, for cooking. Furthermore, the number of people without access to electricity is expected to grow by 2030 unless increased efforts to increase connectivity are made, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. The report suggests that expanding safe, cost-effective power generation in African countries will require a mix of technologies, including regional electric grids and hydro, solar, wind, and geothermal power. Investing in these new facilities will not only help solve Africa’s energy gap, it will also save money and stimulate further investment and job growth. For example, the African Development Bank estimates that investing in regional grids and hydropower will save the region up to US$ 2 billion annually.

In addition to these challenges, Africa also has the youngest population in the world, with almost 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. The report notes that this young population has higher expectations than previous generations regarding education, health, and employment opportunities, with policymakers throughout the region focusing more on how to meet those expectations. Approximately 11 million Africans will seek to join the labor market every year for the next decade, says the World Bank, and many of these young people are not interested in agricultural employment. Improved transportation infrastructure and travel and migration opportunities have drawn many young people away from rural areas into cities; this trend will have implications for the availability of agricultural labor and agricultural productivity. Balancing the trend of urbanization with the importance of the agricultural sector to Africa’s overall economic development will require investment in rural development policies that will give rural youth an incentive to stay on the farm. These could include improvements of rural infrastructure such as electrical connectivity, enhanced educational opportunities for rural youth, extension services to teach innovative agricultural techniques and the importance of climate-smart agriculture, and efforts to better connect farmers to high-value markets to enhance rural livelihoods and make agricultural employment more competitive.

Agriculture remains of particular importance because since 1980, Africa’s food imports have grown consistently faster than its food exports, reaching a first record high of US$ 50 billion in 2008. Furthermore, these increasing food imports have been for staple food products such as cereals, dairy products, edible oils and oilseeds, and meats, implying that Africa now relies on imports to meet its food security needs. This dependency means high import bills, which take government expenditures away from other important development programs such as social safety nets, infrastructure projects, and education and health. However, trade within Africa has been proven to be successful – within the last decade, intra-African trade has accounted for 30 to 60 percent of the continent’s total agricultural exports. This gives hope to the idea that trade within the region could be expanded, strengthening both regional food security and economic development. To accomplish this expansion of intra-regional trade, however, existing trade regimes will need to be reformed to remove distortionary policies such as export bans and export subsidies and to minimize the negative impacts of non-tariff barriers. At the country level, physical infrastructure and agricultural value chains will need to be strengthened to enhance market access for smallholder farmers. In addition, governments will need to step up efforts to ensure that their countries’ legal and regulatory frameworks are transparent, fair, and efficient. There have been strong signs of political commitment in this direction; the Malabo Declaration established the goal to boost intra-African agricultural trade in agricultural commodities and services by tripling the current level of intra-trade by 2025 and by fast-tracking the establishment of a Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) by 2017 and the transition to a continental Common External Tariff (CET) scheme.

By integrating these various regional and international goals, Africa can make important strides in ensuring food and nutrition security, reducing poverty, enhancing inclusive trade and economic development, and ensuring the sustainable use of its natural resources.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: UN Photo/Marco Dormino