Can Africa Really Feed Itself?
By Tukeni Obasi
Several weeks ago, the World Bank released an 85-page report entitled “Africa Can Help Feed Africa”, expressing hope in the continent’s ability to attain self-sufficiency and making recommendations on how to effectively unlock Africa’s agricultural potential. To this end, the overriding solution, the sine qua non, proffered by the World Bank is regional trade.
Cautioning that “an Africa food security model based on national self-sufficiency cannot work”, the Bank is of the opinion that national policy is not enough for a full-scale agrarian revolution as regional trade in staples offers immense potential for food security. It points to the fact that trends in agriculture, including production and rainfall pattern which are influenced by climate change, “are not confined to national borders”. Therefore, according to the report, trade barriers must be removed and Africans should begin trading regionally.
The argument for regional trade deserves some merit. As the demand for food rises, especially in the big cities across the continent, farmers within the country do not currently have the means to meet this demand. Furthermore, they have to contend with rising food prices and cheaper produce from abroad. Thus, as the World Bank report notes, removing regional barriers to trade across the entire value chain will not only reduce the end prices of crops but will significantly cut present transportation costs, facilitating the acquisition of inputs such as fertilisers as well as public-private partnerships across countries. In addition, current extension services will have a wider reach and impact if the borders to knowledge sharing and support are removed. This has led the World Bank to the conclusion that “political economy issues that constrain open regional trade must be addressed” – that countries need to come together to discuss with relevant stakeholders as well as their neighbouring countries on issues of food security and forging a collective approach through effective policies.
While history has shown that autarky is hardly feasible in a fast-changing capitalist world, is there some merit to focusing foremost on national policies towards self-sufficiency? I contend that the answer is yes. This is because the current configuration of political entities has made the nation-state the basis of political identification, relationship-building and policymaking. Therefore, the primary responsibility of the government remains to its constituents. It is thus necessary for a government to put its house in order – at least to some extent – before collaborating with other houses. For example, regional trade is bound to have irregularities if the partnering states have no established packaging regulations or quality grading standards. Also, without basic infrastructure like roads, electricity, storage facilities, regional trade will be a case of national trade writ large – ending up with the same hiccups of transportation, distribution, marketing, communication, and consumption that are current challenges for producers and consumers alike. Put differently, regional trade is no substitute for national agricultural development. In fact, this development will bestow upon the nation-state the credibility it needs to enter into successful negotiations with other countries. This is not to say that regional trade cannot commence until African states are economically buoyant or that regional trade policies and national growth do not go hand in hand (this is far from the truth), but to lay some emphasis on the national project of agricultural transformation and self-sufficiency and its importance for the sustainability of growth in the long run.
It must also be noted that border issues are very much connected to security issues. The struggle over resources, land, and power has been very acute within national borders in many African countries, with important consequences for neighbouring countries who have to deal with displaced, fleeing or teeming refugee populations and guerrilla or security forces. Nigeria should know, having played an important role in peace-building across the continent while dealing with the challenges of insurgency at home. These internal challenges, whether in the northern or the Niger Delta areas of the country, have had a huge impact on international trade and the GDP of the country. Therefore, the effort of peace-building among different factions in the countries must be made a priority and must be largely successful before regional trade can realise its full potential.
The case of Malawi drives home the importance of a solid national agricultural economy. The Malawian agricultural transformation, which was led by the late President Binguwa Mutharika, saw the growth of maize production in the country from 1.2 million tonnes to 3.4 million tonnes in a span of three years. The introduction of the smart-subsidy programme for smallholder farmers and the slashing of imports through increased production helped the government save $120 million annually. This development saw the rise of Malawi as a grain exporter and supplier to the Southern Africa region when the region was hit by a famine. It must be noted that when Mutharika first launched his policy, he was largely criticised – and punished through the withdrawal of aid – by the international community who eventually became won over upon seeing the effects of his policies. Thus, in 2010, when Mutharika stood in front of the African Union advocating sound agricultural policies on the continent and regional trade among countries, it was clear that he was putting his money where his mouth was.
The present effort by the Nigerian government to transform the agricultural sector is thus on the right track. It must be noted that while the emphasis has been on the nation, international partnerships within and beyond the continent have also been forged for material, technical, and technological growth. To maximise the impact of this agenda, this will have to be done in tandem with governance efforts aimed at restoring stability to the nation and other development policies to improve infrastructure. With effective leadership, Nigeria can easily become the number one cassava and rice exporter within the region, while developing other areas where her comparative advantage lies and learning from the successes and failures of other countries. As other African countries begin to look inward and develop sound policies to exploit their comparative advantages, the prices of staples and other essential agricultural commodities will be driven down. Demand will be more easily met as regional trade policies will become more effective, facilitating the acquisition and distribution of inputs and outputs. As countries which have attained credibility begin to collaborate more extensively with one another for regional growth, there’s no telling what great feats they will achieve. However, one thing will be clear at that point: Africa will be feeding itself.