Sub-Saharan Africa’s Urgent Battle Against Food Imports Dependency Continues

sub-Saharan Africa
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Over the years, Sub-Saharan Africa has remained a net importer of food and agricultural products despite having 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated and unutilized arable land. In the recently held Russia – Africa summit in St. Petersburg on 27 – 28 July 2023, President Putin, in his closing remarks, offered, among other things, a shipment of 50,000 tons of grain aid to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea, and the Central African Republic to be shipped in the next three to four months.

Indeed, statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of 2022 database show Africa’s spiraling food import bill stood at $43 billion. During 2016 – 2020. UN food imports (excluding fish) exceeded 50 percent of merchandise exports of 14 African countries including Benin, Burundi, Comoros, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Niger, Liberia, Central Africa Republic, Cape Verde, Sierra Leone, and Sao Tome and Principe.  Africa’s food import bill has increased by about $35.7 over the quarter century from $7.9 billion during 1993 – 1995 to $43.6 billion during 2018 – 2020.

Failure to feed itself in sub-Saharan Africa has led to hunger, malnutrition, and insufficient food supply, especially in the Horn of Africa. Africa over the years, resulting in poverty and malnutrition. Despite having 60 percent of the world’s remaining uncultivated arable land and freshwater bodies scattered across sub-Saharan Africa, Africa is still unable to feed itself, and agribusiness, in particular, is still in its infancy in most sub-Saharan African countries.

Tanzania, despite being in the top five rice exporters in Africa and relatively producing more rice and maize than it consumes over the past few years as data from 2022 shows rice and maize production standing at 1.85 and 6 million tons while consumption was 1 and 6 million tons respectively, still Tanzania depends on food imports especially on wheat, edible oil and sugar accounting to 91%, 66%, and 52 % respectively of the market share of imports, Africa’s Pulse, No. 26, October 2022, World Bank Group Publications. Sadly and depressingly, much of the imported food to Africa could and should be produced locally. It is puzzling that despite all these comparative advantages of vast arable, fertile land and freshwater bodies across much of sub-Saharan Africa, we are still importing food and agricultural products.

Agricultural Production Challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa

Climatic Shocks: There has been an increase in the frequency of climatic shocks in sub-Saharan Africa from 12.5 years to once every 2.5 years (2007 – 2016). As a result of climate change, sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing prolonged droughts, heavy rain, floods, and little rain. These climatic shocks are disrupting the little progress of agricultural production, and hence, sustainability is threatened.

Limited access to productive and financial resources limits the private sector investment in long-time capital capitulated by bureaucracy. These financial constraints are restricting the growth of agriculture as capital is still a challenge. Despite international partners like USAID, the African Development Bank which supports ASDP and the Agriculture Sector Investment Project and other bilateral agreements between these countries in sub-Saharan, financial access for investment in agriculture is still a big challenge.

Epidemics and Regional Wars Spillovers: COVID and sporadic Ebola outbreaks, as well as wars in countries like DR Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and other politically fragile states, have led to a shift of focusing on investment in agricultural production and concentration in finding peace. Unfortunately, in the 21st century, African countries are engulfed in conflicts due to differences in religion and ethnicity. This has dramatically disrupted agricultural production in these fragile states in Africa. These conflicts may be fuelled by world powers to disrupt the food independence of these sub-Saharan African countries and create markets for these world powers’ agricultural produce. This is a discussion for another day.

Wars like the Ukraine war spillovers and major power conflicts have led to record high international food and fuel prices, as noted, especially in the 1st quarter of 2022, resulting in supply disruptions and increased transport costs globally, thus resulting in high fertilizer and input costs, making it unaffordable to most of the people of sub-Saharan who are mostly subsistence farmers.

It is depressing to see governments in these sub-Saharan African countries allocating trifling funds for knowledge and skills transfer in agricultural science and practices. This has led to the stagnation of agricultural production. In most summits like Russia-Africa China-Africa Cooperation ( FOCAC), African heads of state do not stress more on transferring knowledge and skills in agricultural science and practices to their countries. Instead, they are happy to receive a few tons of grain aid.

The Potential is Huge: Africa, with the most fertile uncultivated arable land and freshwater bodies across much of its area, has the potential to be the food basket of the entire world. China, with its massive population and relatively lack of arable land, makes it challenging to be agriculturally self-sufficient. In the 2021 China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) summit in Dakar, Senegal, President Xi Jinping of China unveiled a plan to import agricultural products from Africa worth $300 billion by 2030, In most parts, the Middle East and Europe are vast markets waiting to be utilized. Africa must urgently take serious measures to revamp its agricultural production to tap the potential of food consumption in the world market, as it has the necessary prerequisites for a massive takeoff of agricultural production.

Promising Signs: Sub-Saharan Africa has recorded the highest rate of agricultural production of any region in the world since 2000. There are encouraging partnerships with various international and monetary institutions partnering with African countries to transfer knowledge and skills in agricultural science and capital. African Development Bank, USAID, FAO, and bilateral agreements between countries like Israel, the USA, and Poland increasingly transfer technology and money to these countries. Sub-Saharan African countries’ food export trends are encouraging to the world market. South Africa is now the second exporter of apple fruits to China.

China imports most of its fruits, sesame seeds, and cashes from Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa.  There is an increase in food trade between Kenya and Tanzania and increased soybean trade as animal feed for poultry between Zambia and South Africa.  Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Mauritius increasingly export fruits, flowers, meat, fish, tobacco, tea, cassava, cash, cocoa, and coffee to the world markets worth billions of dollars a year.

Regional Food Trade in Africa

Intertrade between sub-Saharan Africa is still open to colossal growth, connectivity, and easy access to these countries is challenging and needs more investment in cost-efficient infrastructures. There are notable modern railway infrastructure developments in Ethiopia to Djibouti, Kenya, and Tanzania plan to connect with her western neighbors of Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and DR Congo in the next few years. There are commendable investments in cold rooms in airports in some African countries, as well as cargo ships and planes for transporting food and other products.

These infrastructure investments are commendable, but more needs to be done to make connectivity accessible and cost-efficient to speed up inter-trade in sub-Saharan Africa. Interconnectivity will significantly reduce the importation of food and agricultural products from outside Africa as importing food and agricultural products from within Africa is more expensive than from outside Africa.

Why Urgent Investment in Agriculture is vital in Africa?

Sub-Saharan Africa is already one of the world’s most food-insecure regions. With the increasing demand for food as the world population increases and growing food import bills putting pressure on external macroeconomic imbalances and diverting much-needed foreign exchange reserves from importing capital goods and technology, Africa cannot ignore the urgent need to invest in agriculture seriously. Investment in the latest technology in agriculture to stimulate agricultural growth will not only fight hunger and malnutrition but also generate foreign reserves from agricultural product exports.

This will improve the economic conditions of these countries, counter low-cost imports of food from outside Africa, stabilize food systems in Africa, secure food, reduce trade imbalances with the outside world, and create employment opportunities for its people as other countries like Tanzania. Agriculture employs over 75 percent of the population.  It is, therefore, paramount that sub-Saharan Africa invests urgently in agriculture.

Key Areas to Unlock Agricultural Potentials

Actionable policies, urgent action to tackle rising food and energy prices, investments in agricultural research and development in high-value activities technology, soil, and water management, improving the quality of government spending on agriculture, strengthening incentive alignment, reduction of cost of trade by removing tariffs and nontariff barriers, streamlining customs procedures and improving cost-efficient regional transportation system, finding lasting peace in fragile states, subsidizing fertilizer and formulating favorable interest rates in local financial institutions to finance agricultural production in these African countries.

These are some of the areas that need immediate interventions to unlock agricultural potential in Africa. International summit forums with world powers, including China, Russia, Japan, the USA, and the European Union, should be platforms for sub-Saharan Africa to lobby for favorable trade agreements and not for receiving petty aid like grain shipments but instead for the transfer of knowledge and skills in agricultural science and practices, foreign direct investment in farm machinery and processing plants and favorable financial aid to develop extensive and vibrant agriculture sectors in these countries.

By doing so, sub-Saharan African countries will be food self-sufficient, export surpluses, create employment opportunities for their people, fight climatic shocks, improve trade balances, and significantly reduce poverty from agricultural trade.

Read more of Agriculture insights here.

hold a bachelor's degree in Public Relations and Marketing from St. Augustine University of Tanzania. I am currently working as a Hub Data Officer for Benjamin Mkapa Foundation at Usangi District hospital. I am an experienced Marketing and Sales professional where I have worked in this field for over 5 years. I have now worked in a PEPFAR HIV funded programme for over 3 years where I have been receiving various training and facilitation on the basics of comprehensive HIV care. I am passionate about traveling and creative writing and I am determined to learn more about writing to express my ideas that will inspire positive and constructive discussion in Tanzania for the welfare of the Tanzanian society.

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