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Getting agriculture policies right is key for the future of food in Africa

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A field of corn in Zambia with the sun in the background Photo: Sarah Fretwell/ World Bank

Originally published in the East African on June 1, 2023

“Bumper Harvest Year in Sub-Saharan Africa, the World’s Food Basket.” We believe the day will come when this headline describes reality if the right policy choices are made today. Although increasingly frequent climate shocks and food insecurity trends paint a grim picture, Africa can act now to bring this vision to life.

Up to 73 million people in Eastern and Southern Africa experience acute food insecurity, including famine.  While it is critical to feed the hungry and lessen the cost of malnutrition, especially on young children, the cumulative impact of short-term responses to high food and fertilizer prices is dragging the continent in the wrong direction: The number of hungry people is growing, as are the costs of public interventions. Short-term measures with unintended consequences include intervening in agricultural markets to reduce prices for urban consumers -- thereby discouraging farmers from producing more food. And diverting scarce agricultural budgets to cover fertilizer costs, crowding out more productive investments. Subsidies still represent the most common form of government response to inflationary pressures in Africa, and input subsidies represent the largest share of those expenses. 

We believe countries can invest in a future in which Africa is not only self-sufficient but also a prominent food exporter.  Africa has already become the fastest-growing agricultural economy globally. This transformation is driven by rapid urbanization, a rise in income resulting in changing dietary patterns, and the market opportunities opened by regional trade integration. We are also witnessing the rise of medium-scale entrepreneurial investor farmers. And Africa is at the forefront of technical and institutional innovations, with a plethora of pilot projects showcasing new approaches to deliver quality public and private services in the agricultural sector while overcoming distance and low capacity.

Along with investments and innovation, good policies are key to accelerate this transformation. Ultimately, the objective is to allow farmers to respond to market signals and environmental incentives, resulting in more food and better practices that conserve water, control flooding, store more carbon, and protect habitats.  

This can be done, first, by improving the efficiency of public expenditures by reallocating public support programs from untargeted subsidies towards innovation systems, skills development, and productive infrastructure that are critical for enhancing resilience and agricultural productivity. For example, one dollar invested in agricultural research yields, on average, benefits equivalent to $10, while gains from investments in irrigation are also potentially high. Investing in climate-smart agriculture to boost yields and addressing soil and water degradation are particularly important.  Governments can also leverage responsible private investments in the agri-food sector to strengthen development outcomes, whether they are measured in terms of income, health, nutrition, or sustainability.

Finally, regional trade offers a unique opportunity to enhance the resilience of food systems to international shocks. The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) could be leveraged to remove barriers to regional food trade. Yet, the benefits of regional food trade have not been truly exploited within Africa. Through regional trade, African farmers have the potential to meet much of the rising food demand on the continent, while providing substitutes for more expensive imports from the global market.

As food crises become more frequent, the World Bank and development partners, are working with countries to establish Food Security Crises Preparedness Plans that bring together fragmented crisis preparedness elements into cohesive action to prevent and mitigate the impacts of these crises. We’re also working regionally to mobilize resources for food security responses while investing in resilient agricultural production systems in countries like Comoros, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Somalia, and Tanzania, and related activities by regional institutions, through sizeable Food Systems Resilience Programs.

What’s emerging from this work is a sense of shared responsibility for the future of food in Africa. That is why we were thrilled to convene the Africa Agricultural Policies Leadership Dialogue hosted by the Government of Zambia and organized by the World Bank in Lusaka, Zambia on June 1-2. The event allowed high-level representatives from countries in Eastern and Southern Africa to engage in a rich exchange of practical knowledge and policy experiences and to forge new partnerships. The conference built a coalition of well-informed champions to take this vision forward.

Getting agricultural policies right, with the support of regional partners, is critical to move Africa’s agri-food sector from emergency to resilience, from food deficit to food pantry, and to cement the sector’s role as an engine of growth, poverty reduction, and job creation.


Victoria Kwakwa

Vice President, Eastern and Southern Africa

Juergen Voegele

Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank

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