A farmer in the field
A farmer in the field

Food insecurity in Africa: Sovereignty in crisis?

Food has no substitute. It is one of the basic and critical necessities needed for healthy living and growth.

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Sadly, many people around the world face food insecurity. According to the 2023 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report, between 691 and 783 million people faced hunger in 2022, representing an increase of 122 million people compared to 2019.

It is within this context that the subject of food security has actively remained one of the top priorities of many world leaders, particularly in regions and countries where food security remains a big challenge.

Although the topic of food security has consistently appeared on the international agenda not so long ago and continues to be discussed, rather against the background of other failures of the international system, the foundations of what determines a country's sovereignty are partly attached to its ability to feed its people. 

Programmes

In Africa, for instance, food security occupies a lion’s share of the region’s socio-economic programmes. The reason why many countries in the region are food insecure.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), almost 55 million people are facing further food and nutrition insecurity in West and Central Africa during the region's three-month lean season from June through August.

Similarly, the World Bank estimates that at least one in five Africans goes to bed hungry and an estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity, according to the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises 2022 Mid-Year Update.

The impacts of climate change and conflicts have further worsened the situation on the continent. The Horn of Africa is suffering from persistent drought and countries that depend on Russia and Ukraine for wheat and sunflower oil imports have seen price hikes out of reach of ordinary people. 

What is even fuelling food insecurity in the region is the region’s growing taste for foreign foods– mostly European and Asian foods. What this means is that the region largely depends on imported foods to feed its people.

The African region now consumes a lot of rice and wheat which are mostly grown outside the continent. Although sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 11.6 per cent of global wheat imports and 21.8 per cent of rice, consumption is steadily increasing. Over 10 years, wheat imports to sub-Saharan Africa have grown 1.7 times, which is faster than the overall growth rate of imported food.

Nigeria, for instance, placed a ban on imported rice to help the country retain its revenues for such ventures, encouraging local production of the staple food in the most populous country in Africa. 

Social protection

Across the West African sub-region, social protection programmes have been essential to enable households to cope with high food prices and localised shortages. The poorest households are the most affected group when food prices go up since they spend the largest share of their income on food.

The economic turmoil including, currency devaluation, stagnated production, increasing inflation and trade barriers has further exacerbated the food crisis in many parts of West Africa, including Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Mali.  

These economic challenges, as well as fuel and transport costs, have additionally added energy to the food crisis in these countries, pushing many vulnerable households into extreme poverty.

According to the United Nations, to date, cereal production for the 2023-2024 agricultural season has seen a 12 million tonne deficit while the availability of cereals per person is down two per cent compared with the region’s last agricultural season.

Currently, West and Central Africa are reliant on imports to satisfy the population’s food requirements, but economic hardship has increased the cost of imports. The UN in an article published on October 17, 2022, on its portal titled, “Putting Africans at the Heart of Food Security and Climate Resilience” indicates that malnutrition in West and Central Africa has risen to a shockingly high rate with 16.7 million children under five experiencing acute malnutrition.

The article further adds that more than two-thirds of households are struggling to afford healthy diets and eight out of 10 children, ranging from six to 23 months, lack the consumption of foods essential to their optimal growth and development.

The UNICEF Regional Director, Gilles Fagninou, is on record to have said: "For children in the region to reach their full potential, we need to ensure that each girl and boy receives good nutrition and care, lives in a healthy and safe environment and is given the right learning opportunities."

As crises multiply and the devastating conflict in Ukraine drags on, its global effects are being felt hard in the Sahel and West Africa, a region with more than 38 million people facing acute food insecurity. Many more people could be pushed into food insecurity on the continent by the war.  

Context

In the context of food security, this is a serious factor because these crops – wheat – are grown outside the continent, which means that their import increases in connection with prevailing market conditions of the external suppliers.

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The price of wheat, a food staple for many households, stood at 60 per cent higher at the start of June 2022 compared to January 2021, according to World Bank data. This is a serious blow to food sovereignty in the region.

It is important to mention that unpredictable import conditions often lead to an increase in domestic food prices which Africa has always been a victim. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), food inflation in 2020-2022 was about 24 per cent, and it rose to 29 per cent over the past year.

When comparing the key indicators of the current state of food security with those ten years ago (2012), it is obvious that the situation in Africa has seriously worsened. The total number of malnourished people on the continent has increased 1.7 times and exceeded 262 million people. 

Considering the importance of food security and its impact on socio-political development, African leaders must take their destinies into their own hands and engage in ventures that will not jeopardise the continent’s ability to feed its people.

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Africa must shift focus from its dependency on another Continent for food and rather invest more resources in climate-smart agriculture to become self-sufficient in terms of food.

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