Blog Post

Food System Transformation Will Take Strong Coordination and Political Will, Says 2023 Africa Agriculture Status Report

Food systems in Africa have the potential to drive dramatic economic, food security, and environmental transformation in the coming decades, according to the 2023 Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR). Realizing this potential, however, will require significant political will and investment, from both the public and the private sectors, in infrastructure, open trade, research and development, technological innovation, and enhanced education and opportunities for Africa’s rapidly expanding young population.

Africa contains 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, is rich in other natural resources, and is expected to be home to 200 million young people by 2030. At the same time, the region remains plagued by poverty, food insecurity, and low agricultural productivity. Over 250 million people in Africa were undernourished in 2022, and over 20 million faced severe food shortages in the same year. The region is also heavily dependent on food imports, despite its agricultural potential, and those imports are expected to increase from USD 43 billion in 2021 to USD 110 billion in 2025.

In order to overcome these hurdles and achieve sustainable food system and economic transformation, policymakers, development practitioners, and researchers must first understand the driving factors. The AASR23 identifies a number of key challenges hampering Africa’s food system development:

  • Low adoption of improved agricultural technologies and practices;
  • Poor transportation, storage, and processing infrastructure;
  • High post-harvest agricultural losses;
  • Lack of access to credit and other financing for smallholder farmers and other food system actors;
  • Trade restrictions and supply chain disruptions leading to market failures;
  • Extreme and variable weather driven by climate change;
  • High inflation and food prices and other instances of economic instability;
  • Ongoing conflict and associated disruptions of markets, livelihoods, and populations;
  • Lack of access to education, training, and agricultural extension services;
  • High input prices for fertilizers and fuel.

Looking toward the future, the AASR23 also identifies several pathways through which food system transformation can be empowered to drive improved economic, environmental, and hunger and nutrition outcomes.

Investment in innovation, education, and job training

To help smallholder farmers and other actors along food system value chains take advantage of improved practices and technologies to boost productivity, both public budgets and private sector investments need to prioritize innovation. This clearly includes agricultural research and development into things like improved seed varieties and drought-resistant crops, as well as technological innovations such as the use of data sensors to control pest outbreaks and improve crop yields or mobile devices and social media to increase market knowledge and access.

The AASR23 also points out that innovation also needs to encompass financing, institutions, and policymaking. Thinking “outside the box” in these sectors is critical in ensuring that producers, processors, traders, and consumers are all engage in modernized food systems effectively and equitably.

Finally, Africa’s burgeoning young population brings with it immense potential to lead food system and economic transformation. To make this potential a reality will require increased investment in education, training, and job opportunities both on-farm and off-farm; importantly, these services need to be tailored to unique local and regional contexts and ensure the inclusion of vulnerable populations like women. Knowledge-sharing investments could include digital learning platforms, farmer field schools, and agricultural extension services.

Prioritization of infrastructure projects

It is estimated that poor infrastructure causes Africa to lose as much as 2 percent of its annual average per capita growth rate. By investing in proper infrastructure—rural roads and electrification, irrigation, cold storage facilities, and industrial parks—Africa can jumpstart its food system transformation and economic growth. Such prioritization will require both private sector investment and repurposing of public sector budgets toward the food sector.

Support for regional free trade agreements

Trade is an essential feature of successful food system transformation, helping diversify production of nutritious foods, increase market access, create jobs, strengthen agricultural and food value chains, and stimulate growth. In 2018, the African Union established the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) with the goal of enhancing both intra-regional free trade and trade with the rest of the world. As of 2023, 54 AU members have signed the agreement and 45 have ratified the treaty.

For the AfCFTA to truly be effective in reducing Africa’s trade deficit, particularly in agricultural and food products, member States need to prioritize eliminating duties on key agricultural products, eliminating non-tariff barriers to trade, and avoiding knee-jerk policies like export bans on food products in times of food crisis.

A multi-sectoral approach to balance agricultural productivity, nutrition, and environmental sustainability

Improving Africa’s food and nutrition security outcomes will require enhancing agricultural productivity and diversifying diets away from the starchy staple commodities that currently make up the biggest portion of the region’s food basket. However, solely focusing on agricultural productivity and dietary diversification can cause unintended negative environmental consequences. Policymakers, researchers, and development practitioners will need to ensure their approach is not siloed to just one development outcome and instead encourage improved nutrition and food security without exacerbating existing environmental degradation. This could include investing in climate-smart agricultural practices like inter-cropping and reducing post-harvest food loss and waste through improved storage and transportation.  

Policy reform to create a strong enabling environment

All of the foregoing priorities require a strong focus on policy to support them and ensure a proper enabling environment for food system transformation. Policy reforms like more equitable land governance or stronger social protection programs can also help support populations through such transformation.