Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Seizing the Agri-Food Opportunity in Eastern and Southern Africa

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Photo by World Bank Photo by World Bank

This blog was originally published on LinkedIn

Confronted with a set of challenges that is threatening hard-earned development gains, the African continent remains resilient and endowed with rich creativity and innovation that has the potential to turn around food insecurity, generate jobs, promote trade, and create more prosperous livelihoods for its people. With more than 66 million people  projected to experience food stress, emergency, or famine this year across Eastern and Southern Africa, it is imperative that we help unleash the potential of the agri-food sector—to not only put an end to hunger, but to also establish economic prosperity across the region.

These statistics provide further food for thought:

  • The African agricultural economy is the fastest growing across all continents: it has witnessed a 4.1% growth from 2000-2020 compared to 2.7% worldwide, with East Asia and Pacific at 3.5%; Latin America at 2.6%; and South Asia at 3.0%.
  • By 2050, the food industry in Eastern and Southern Africa is expected to see an 800% increase in the value of food, and trade in processed foods could increase by up to 90%. Africa at large will be a $1 trillion food market by 2030, with consumption in cities driving the demand for more products.
  • The agriculture and food sector accounts for 15% of the GDP of countries in Eastern and Southern Africa in 2020. As much as 59% of the region’s population was employed in agriculture in 2019, with some countries like Burundi and Somalia touching 86% and 80% respectively.
  • In Eastern and Southern Africa, agricultural productivity could increase by up to 2–3 times if better farm inputs and production technologies are adopted, water and soil resources are used more efficiently, and natural capital and ecosystems are restored.

Now consider these abundant opportunities against this fact: Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, when 1 in 4 people worldwide will be living in Sub-Saharan Africa. With a doubling in mouths to feed and 140 million people already facing food insecurity today, Africa must move up the value chain in agriculture now and become more self-reliant. The question then is: how can this vibrant potential be bolstered? How can Eastern and Southern Africa continue to tease out its potential and show growth in agriculture and food systems?

Africa Must Invest in Climate Action

Let us start with the elephant in the room: the climate crisis and the need for food systems to adapt to it. Consider these facts:

  • Climate-induced shocks to the food system used to occur once every 12 years on average in Africa; they are now occurring about every 2.5 years. This is too frequent for countries, regions, or farms to sufficiently recover between the shocks.
  • Food security declines by 5–20% with each flood or drought, while the region experiences about a 1.4% reduction in food calories per year from key food security crops. The Horn of Africa is set to miss its 5th rainy season in a row, making it the worst drought in 40 years and South Sudan is facing record-breaking rains and floods for a fourth consecutive year as the climate crisis accelerates.
  • It’s been estimated that the global food system is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions—second only to the energy sector; it is the number one source of methane and biodiversity loss. Climate smart agriculture is known for its triple benefits of higher productivity, climate adaptation, and emissions reduction, and was high on the world’s agenda at COP27.
  • The cost of making food systems resilient right now is $1.8 billion/year. However, if we do not invest in climate action now, it will cost $200 billion/year. The cost of inaction is high.

Adapting Africa’s food system to climate change is imperative, not optional.

Africa Must Get its Policies Right

Since food security across Africa is compounded most by the effects of climate change, declining agricultural productivity, and rapid population and urbanization growth, policy priorities centered around leveraging science and digital technology, and addressing fragility hold the greatest promise across the African continent.

There are bright spots in Eastern and Southern Africa where policy actions and innovations are bearing fruit.

Zambia has the potential to become a significant exporter of food for the Eastern and Southern Africa region, given its large land and water resource base for agricultural production and its strategic location bordering eight countries. The Zambia Growth Opportunities (ZAMGRO) Program, a US$300 million effort funded by the World Bank is putting policy reforms and institutional enhancements at the center stage of agricultural growth. The new Zambian government is committed to developing the potential of the agri-food sector to meet its national development goals of promoting inclusive growth and creating jobs. The country is moving from supporting agricultural subsidies to redirecting its public expenditures to subsectors such as irrigation and agricultural extension. It is also reaffirming its commitment to food exports and the improvements of its grain marketing arrangements. In the process, Zambia is accelerating diversification, climate resilience, and inclusive agricultural growth.

Tanzania, despite many challenges, has witnessed the emergence of medium-scale farmers, and it is estimated that 13 million days of additional work annually for hired agriculture labor have been created between 2008 and 2014 by the new 368,000 medium-scale farms. This is equivalent to a total worth of US $225-300 million. This growth has boosted income for many Tanzanians, especially youth. The World Bank has had a long-standing analytical and advisory engagement with the government and is mobilizing resources in support of the Agricultural Sector Development Programme Phase II (ASDPII) focused on the commercialization of agriculture.

Policies drive innovation and lead to better food and nutrition for all. These country initiatives prove that despite the challenges of climate change and state fragility in parts of Africa, the continent has the potential to not only achieve food and nutrition security, but to also leverage the food sector for its overall development.

A success story on getting agri-food innovation right is the One Million Farmer Platform in Kenya. The initiative, supported by the World Bank, illustrates how agricultural practices and outcomes can be transformed by leveraging digital technologies and public-private partnerships. Two World Bank programs—the Kenya Climate Smart Agriculture and the National Agriculture Inclusive Growth Project are mobilizing this initiative and have exceeded their initial target of enrolling 1 million farmers, and currently serve 1.3 million farmers, including 50,000 farmer groups and 500 farmer producer organizations across 19 value chains in 45 rural counties. The farmers are benefiting from a range of technologies that provide:

  • Climate-smart agricultural advice via more than 900 technologies, innovations, and management practices in real time to increase productivity. More than 30,000 farms have benefited from the Digicow app that offers small-scale livestock owners, access to veterinary services, artificial insemination services, and more.
  • Tools to help farmers produce high quality, high yield crops and link them to markets. The M-Shamba app uses data analytics to match what farmers grow to market needs in addition to helping them sell products. 
  • Linkages to farmers on credit and savings products; insurance; and other innovative financial services, enabling them to invest in their farms. More than 35,000 farmers have benefited from the Acre Africa’s insurance products that shield them against unpredictable weather conditions.
  • Solutions enabling data-driven decision-making. Astral Aerial has mapped over 2,700 farmers in Kiambu county using drones, allowing farmers to make corrective adjustments on their farms before harvesting, thereby increasing productivity.

Carpe Diem!

It is clear, the agri-food sector has tremendous potential to create wealth across Eastern and Southern Africa, provided the right support and investments are in place. However, to harness the untapped potential of the sector, its leaders and citizens must address the existing challenges and invest in sustainable and innovative solutions in food and agriculture. Africa’s past is not its future, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the agri-food sector: it is a space that is not ridden with poverty and gloom but lit with opportunity and optimism for Africa to shape its own development path. It’s a path that is self-determined and locally rooted, yet internationally connected. It is a path of hope for what is there today and the prosperity that is yet to come.


Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President, Eastern and Southern Africa

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