Covid-19 has unleashed a multiplicity of crises on Africa in a manner not seen before. Beyond the virus and the measures required to contain it, African countries also face a broader health crisis, an economic crisis, and a food security crisis. Globally the number of people going hungry is expected to double to around 260 million and a large proportion of these are in Africa. According to the World Food Programme, the number of people going hungry has increased by 50 per cent since March alone in Burkina Faso. And the number of food insecure people in East Africa is estimated to increase by 73 per cent to more than 41 million people this year.
While disruptions to production and supply and market chains have contributed to this, the main driver of food insecurity and malnutrition is the loss of income. The broader economic crisis that African countries are currently going through is leading to a loss of livelihoods that in turn is raising poverty and hunger levels. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), poor people rely on up to 70 per cent of their incomes for food and in South Africa half of the respondents to a national survey said they ran out of money to buy food in recent months.
So if we are to deliver food security in Africa in a manner that can withstand shocks like Covid-19, not to mention climate change, the main vehicle needs to be raising incomes. These need to rise across both less affluent income groups as well as mid-level income groups.
When one looks at countries that have raised incomes and increased the resilience of their food systems to crises such as Covid-19, these typically depended on an agriculture revolution that then spurred an industrial transformation and economic transformation. This story is true whether one looks at the US, European countries, Israel, Brazil, China, Mauritius or Morocco. It is no wonder that these countries have seen relatively little increases in food insecurity during the Covid-19 crisis and that African countries account for a large share of the increase.
Critically, the main contribution of agriculture to delivering food and nutrition security is not through increasing local agriculture production per se, although this of course is important. Rather, it is through setting a country on a path to broader economic transformation and industrialisation such that the vast majority of people across the country can raise their incomes to a point where they – and the government they pay taxes to – can afford to manage economic and food shocks, while raising demand for food products.
When one looks at recent success stories of agricultural transformation – such as Israel in the 1950s, Brazil in the 1970s, China in the 1980s and Ethiopia and Morocco in the 2000s – two common features stand out. First, agriculture transformation was not primarily seen as key for food production itself. Rather it was primarily viewed as the cornerstone of the nations’ entire economic development plans. It was about food and incomes, and not just about food. In contrast, across most of Africa and among its development partners in recent decades, it has been looked at as being almost entirely about food.
A second common feature is the strong role that the head of state played in moving the sector forward. Agriculture transformation was a key priority for the head of state and cabinet as a whole – and not just for the Ministry of Agriculture. These championed a strong developmental vision with agriculture as its foundation and coordinated their actions around a targeted strategy with specific priority value chains and reforms, while following market dynamics so the private sector could flourish while being steered. If Africa is going to transform its agriculture, feed and nourish itself and the world, African governments – at the highest levels – need to be in the driving seat.
This is the reason why the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change is, for the third year running, a strategic partner in the Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), Africa’s largest annual agriculture convention. The forum, which takes place this week, is an essential meeting place for governments, the private sector, development partners and non-governmental organisations to identify how to scale up the continent’s agriculture and food systems transformation. Our emphasis this year is on supporting the governments we work with to facilitate agriculture investment into their country. Securing catalytic investment is an essential component of the support political leaders and governments need to help them play their role to develop inclusive agricultural markets that can raise incomes at scale.
As the continent works through the multiple Covid-19-induced crises – not least the food security crises – the forum creates the right platform to make the case for scaling up investment in Africa’s agriculture and agro-processing systems in a way that can set the basis for the economic transformation and industrialisation of the continent. In turn it is a good platform for governments to get the collaboration they need from development partners, the private sector and non-governmental organisations to implement their agriculture transformation agendas. Such an approach is the only way that African countries can build the resilience they need to recover from this shock, while becoming more resilient to face future shocks.