Putting more food on Africa's table -- with a little help from science and other clever things

Africa is rising, what about its food?

LAST year Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, invested $1 billion into rice production in Nigeria. This new investment is in support of the Nigerian Government’s plan to attain food sufficiency and become a net-exporter of rice by 2015. Rice is crucial to Nigeria’s food security - 84% of Nigerian households consume rice yet the country has a rice import bill currently exceeding $2 billion, which has the potential to deplete the country’s foreign currency reserves. 

Today the country is not too far behind its 2015 target and Dangote’s investment will serve to bolster these efforts. Nigeria has currently achieved 80% self-sufficiency in paddy rice production and, in 2013, added seven million metric tonnes of paddy rice to the domestic food supply. 

Food production is a very real concern in Africa. The average annual growth in food demand is projected at 2.83% per year from 2000 - 2030, due to population increase which is set to increase rapidly. By 2030 the continent will need to feed 1.5 billion people and 2 billion by 2050. 

Whilst there have been significant increases in agricultural productivity globally, current productivity growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is not enough - at the rate it’s going today, only 13% of total food demand will be met in 2050. 

North Africa will however fare better with the Middle East and Northern Africa region able to satisfy 83% of total food demand, at its current total factor productivity rate. Sub-Saharan Africa’s huge gap will need to be closed through investments in productivity improvements, selective expansion, intensification, and trade.

Government policies

In the case of Nigeria’s rice achievements, it is largely attributed to the introduction of a number of key policies and investment strategies by the government. At the macro level, rice import tariffs are being increased leading to a complete embargo by 2015 when the goal of rice self-sufficiency is supposed to be met. The federal government also reached six million rice farmers across the country through the provision of fertilisers and high quality seeds and implemented reforms which deregulated seed and fertiliser markets, potentially bringing cheaper prices and more choices of suppliers. 

Whilst this is just focusing on one of Nigeria’s cereals, sub-Saharan African countries whose agricultural production indices on a whole have shown steady increases include Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. Ethiopia should also be mentioned however since it doubled its grain production from 8 million metric tons in 2000 to 15.6 million metric tons in 2010 -  making it Sub-Saharan Africa’s second largest grain producer behind Nigeria. 

Use of fertiliser

The increased use of fertiliser was a major factor behind Ethiopia’s increases in cereal production. In 2010, the government embarked on a new policy initiative, the Growth and Transformation Program - which aimed to double yields by 2015. In line with the objectives of this program, the government increased fertiliser imports from 440,000 tons in 2008 to about 890,000 thousand in 2012. 

Unfortunately uptake by farmers was not keeping up, fertiliser availability far exceeded total consumption resulting in large carryover stocks reaching almost half a million tons - worth roughly $350 million - sitting in the cooperative warehouses throughout the country in 2012. In order to deal with this, in 2013 the government launched a new national fertiliser blending program which created Ethiopia’s first in-country blended fertiliser. By blending fertilisers locally it meant that smallholder famers not only had access to an expanded range of soil nutrients, but they were also able to request custom blended formulas tailored to their specific soil needs. To raise awareness, the effectiveness of the blended fertilisers was demonstrated at 5,000 farmer training centres and on 50,000 farmer’s plots. Other groups such as the International Fertiliser Industry Association and the African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership also sought to raise awareness on the importance of fertiliser use in Ethiopia. 

Zambia’s alternative approaches

For some African countries the issue is fertile, nutrient-rich soils that are submerged underwater, as is the case for Zambia. Zambia contains 40% of Southern Africa’s surface freshwater and seasonally almost 20% of the country is inundated. Traditionally Zambians living in floodplains had developed a network of man-made canals that delivered water to homes and farmlands during drier months for irrigation and reduced the severity of flooding during the wet season by carrying floodwater away from villages and farms. These practices however were lost over time, but have fortunately been recently revived by local and international organisations.

Zambia is a success story as a country that has attained self-sufficiency in wheat and soybean production, greatly attributed to protectionist government policies, high demand and conservation farming practices. The Conservation Farming Unit (CFU), initiated by the Zambia National Farmers Union, spent five years advocating the use of conservation farming techniques and in the early 2000s their efforts paid off when small-scale farmers began to report record productivity. One conservation farming technique is that plant residue from the previous crop is left on the land to minimise erosion and provide organic material - reducing the need for expensive chemical fertilisers.  

Investing in research

Innovative practices such as CFU come about because of agricultural research. An imperative factor in achieving future sustainable food production is good agricultural research policy and implementation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of African countries spend less than 2% GDP on agricultural research, with only Botswana and Mauritius allocating over 4%. In Botswana this was reflected in a big spike in the number of researchers holding PhD degrees, which between 2000–2011 saw the number of researchers qualified to the BSc-degree level tripled. 

Good storage

Even if innovative practices that increase production are adopted another immense hurdle faced is inadequate post-harvest storage. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa farmers suffer between 20-30% post-harvest maize losses due to inadequate storage techniques. In 2011 the government of Rwanda sought to address this issue through the establishment of the National Post-harvest Staple Crop Strategy. The strategy included the creation of bulk storage facilities around the country and post-harvest training for farmers. A survey conducted in Rwanda last year indicated a loss of 18.9% of maize production compare to 30% in 2009, in the same period, rice post-harvest loss was reduced from 24.8% to 15.2%. 

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