Doing more—and better—for Africa’s food system in the face of climate change

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Africa’s food systems are in the throes of a climate crisis.  From devastating droughts in Southern Africa and West Africa to cyclones and flooding in East Africa, extreme weather is threatening crops and livestock and putting millions of Africans at risk for food insecurity. 237 million people suffer from chronic undernutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa, a number that rose in 2017, derailing gains that were made in previous years. The message from the headlines is loud and clear: We urgently need to adapt Africa’s agriculture and food system to climate change. And we need to act now. 

We need to close the gap between today’s production and the projected demand for food in the future—and we need to make sure that any increase is done in a sustainable way. So how do we close the gap?

More and more African countries are realizing that developing and promoting adoption of climate-smart technologies, implementing the right enabling policies and developing relevant skills in Africa’s food system workforce are among the game-changers that can truly make a difference. Getting it right with these fundamentals can help lay the foundation for a food system that can better feed and sustain Africa.

Digital and disruptive technologies, such as the ones promoted by CGIAR and private sector players, can prompt agricultural transformation on the continent. From using big data to drive smarter farm-level decisions on water management and fertilizer use to deploying drought-resistant crop varieties, Africa can move its food system forward by using the right technologies.  Governments can help by addressing institutional bottlenecks that slow down adoption—for example, it can take years for new crop varieties to reach farmers and internet access isn’t always accessible to farmers in rural areas. Specifically, governments can provide critical services such as effective extension services that provide farmers with training and knowledge, which the private sector currently has few incentives to provide. Governments can also help create the conditions for access to finance, which is fundamental to commercial agriculture.

Secondly, a policy environment that enables rather than hinders agricultural transformation can help ease the transition to a climate-adapted food system. Getting subsidies right is an area that is getting more attention, and a growing focus of the World Bank’s attention. Globally, governments spend nearly US$600 billion in agriculture subsidies every year. A large portion of these subsidies are distortionary, and often don’t work to incentivize climate-smart agriculture. Imagine if African governments focused on channeling millions of dollars in public support to CSA investments?  It could make a real positive difference in the food system, and in helping to make farmers more resilient, productive and sustainable.

Finally, agricultural transformation will need dedicated people with the right knowledge and skills. Only 2% of Africa’s students specialize in agriculture, even though agriculture contributes 32% of Africa’s GDP.  Despite low enrollment in agricultural programs, demand—and opportunity—continues to be high in the food system—and this upward trend of high demand and great opportunity looks to continue into the future. After all, farming alone accounts for 60% of total employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. When you take jobs into account the food system as a whole, the total number of jobs is much higher. Moreover, in several East African countries including Ethiopia and Zambia, to name just a few, the food system is projected to add more jobs than the rest of the economy between 2010 and 2025. So Africa need more homegrown food producers, food processors, food system entrepreneurs, agronomists, agricultural scientists. Countries need to invest more in supporting the development of a skill base that can rise up to meet the magnitude of Africa’s food system challenge. We also need to think of innovative ways and provide incentives to attract talent to the food system, and convince Africa’s future generations that the agriculture and food sector is the most promising place for them to develop their careers.

These are big challenges that require ambitious action. It’s encouraging that Africa’s leaders are committing themselves to adapting the continent’s food system to climate change—starting the conversation at a very high level at the recent Africa Food Security Leadership Dialogue on Climate Adaptation of Africa’s Agriculture. The event, which drew 34 African countries and 42 organizations was a promising start and we at the Bank are looking forward to continuing to work with partners on the to help build the foundation of a food system that can feed all of Africa, everyday, everywhere.


Simeon Ehui

Regional Director for Sustainable Development for Africa

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