A young farmer displays her products for sale in Cameroon. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
Africa is swimming in a vast ocean of agricultural potentials, yet depends on imported food to survive. A glimmer of hope may depend on an initiative by African Development Bank. Reporter ARISON TAMFU investigates.
By ARISON TAMFU
Little Sonia stands with arms akimbo in front of a mud house impatiently waiting for food to be served. It is a breezy evening in Ndop, a locality in the North West region of Cameroon. Inside the kitchen her mother, Theresa Ngum is immersed in preparing Sonia’s most preferred delicacy – rice.
“This can barely feed them” says Theresa referring to her five children.
In 2001, her husband died after a protracted illness, leaving her with five mouths to feed- three boys and two girls.These are difficult days for the family.
“We are just struggling to survive. The children are always hungry. There is no money to buy food.I borrowed 500 francs cfa to buy the rice I am preparing” says Theresa, speaking in Pidgin English.
Theresa lives in Ndop,a community of predominantly rice farmers, paradoxically she and hundred other farmers in Ndop consume mostly rice imported from China and Thailand. She owns a rice farm just in her backyard but will rather borrow money to buy the Chinese rice she is preparing for her children.
“The children prefer the Chinese rice because it’s more tasteful. Besides, our own rice is scarce” she says grinding spices to liven up the rice.
The Cameroonian government’s reluctance to boast local production has resulted in the massive and indiscriminate importation of rice into the country. The import policy has killed the local rice sector.
Theresa recollects miserably the good-old-days when Ndop rice ruled Cameroon.
“We did not know about any rice but Ndop rice. It was the only rice consumed all over Cameroon and it was very cheap. We, smallholder farmers could feed our families and still made enough money from selling rice. There was no poverty” she recalls.
“We have nothing now. I am a farmer and why should I buy the food that I can cultivate from someone else?” she asks rhetorically.
Naïve as her question may sound,it signals a key problem that currently affects not only Cameroon but the rest of the African continent. What Theresa does not know is that, when it comes to food security, there is good and bad news for Africa.
Paradox of a ‘breadbasket’ continent
Here is the good news: Africa is blessed with great potentials to feed itself and expand its food and agricultural exports. The continent holds almost 65 percent of the world’s arable land which is suited for growing food crops, comprising as many as 450 million hectares that are not forested, protected, or densely populated according to World Bank’s Growing Africa: Unlocking the Potential of Agribusiness report.
Africa uses less than 2 percent of its renewable water sources, compared to a world average of five percent the report adds. The World Bank estimates that food production and processing in Africa could generate $1 trillion a year by 2030.
“We are lucky to be endowed with these natural gifts suitable for farming. In fact there was a time Africa was feeding the world” says Professor Sakwe Nekongo, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, University of Buea.
According to Food And Agriculture Organisation of the UN (FAO)more than 30 years ago, Africa was a net exporter of agricultural products including food.
“We still have the potential to be self-sufficient and export” says Professor Sakwe.
“When Africa manages to feed itself, as – within a generation – it will also be able to feed the 9 billion people who will inhabit the planet in 2050”says Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Here is the bad news:Yes, Africa has great agricultural potentials but it cannot eat potentials.Most of the continent is hungry. A UN March 2017 report warned that urgent action is needed to save millions from simply “starving to death” on the continent.
“It was right to sound the alarm early, not wait for the pictures of emaciated dying children … to mobilize a reaction and the funds,” UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien told the UN Security Council.
A sad situation for a continent that can feed itself but depends largely on food imports and aid to survive.
Africa lost its status as a net exporter of agricultural products in the early 1980s when prices of raw commodities fell and local production stagnated. Since then, agricultural imports have grown consistently faster than exports and by 2007 reached a high of $47bn, yielding a deficit of $22bn according to FAO report.
A 2016 research published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) found that Sub-Saharan Africa currently imports about 20 percent of its cereal needs, and this could rise to at least 50 percent by 2050.
“Africa is wasting vast amounts of money and resources by underrating its agriculture sector. For example, it spends $35 billion in foreign currency annually importing food, a figure that is set to rise to over $100 billion per year by 2030” laments Akinwumi Adesina.
“In so doing, Africa is choking its own economic future. It is importing the food that it should be growing itself. It is exporting, often to developed countries, the jobs it needs to keep and nurture. It also has to pay inflated prices resulting from global commodity supply fluctuations” he adds.
Ndop rice for sale in Bamenda. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
Nigeria is a quintessence of Africa’s food decline. Once the world’s most promising food producers, beating the likes of Malaysia and Indonesia in palm oil, and the US and Argentina in groundnuts, Nigeria today spends over $5bn annually to import food that can otherwise be grown locally.
Nigeria prides itself on producing 65 per cent of tomatoes in western central Africa, but it is the largest importer of tomato paste from China and Italy.
“While Nigeria is second in the world in citrus production and Africa’s biggest pineapple producer, its supermarkets are stocked with concentrated, imported versions of both” This is Africa report said.
How it got here
So why has Africa witnessed such decline in her food production? To Theresa bad luck is partly to blame.
“There was a time that the weather was so bad that it damaged all rice crops that we planted. I had to abandon rice farming for a while” she says.
Fundamentally, the population has been increasing but food production has remained stagnant and that has given birth to a rise in food imports according to FAO. Policy distortions, weak institutions and poor infrastructure have also impeded Africa’s food growth.
“Contemporary farm inputs, including improved seeds, mechanisation and irrigation, are very much limited” says Professor Sakwe.
But there is also lack of well to invest in agriculture by the African governments although some African countries have realised that agriculture is important.
“Take for instance the commitment to invest at least 10 percent of national budgets in agriculture. Not many countries are meeting this goal” says Dr Nteranya Sanginga of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).
So will Africa’s fast growing population continue to depend on food imports? Difficult to say but there is a piece of glad tidings on the horizon for the continent.
Therapy for food crisis
The piece of glad tidings is, the African Development Bank believes the solution to Africa’s food crisis lies in agro-industrialisation and has announced it will invest $24 billion in agriculture and agribusiness on the continent over the next ten years. A key component of the initiative would be providing $700 million to a flagship programme known as “Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation” for the scaling up of agricultural technologies to reach millions of farmers in Africa in the next ten years according to AfDB.
The initiative is expected to improve the fortunes of farmers and address the twin problem of food insecurity and unemployment.
To further eliminate dependence on food imports, governments would provide fiscal and infrastructure incentives for food manufacturing companies to move into rural areas, closer to zones of production than consumption.
“This can be achieved by developing agro-industrial zones and staple crop processing zones in rural areas. These zones, supported with consolidated infrastructure, including roads, water, electricity and perhaps suitable accommodation, will drive down the cost of doing business for private food and agribusiness firms” says Akinwumi Adesina.
The zones, according to AfDB would create new markets for farmers, boosting economic opportunities in rural areas, stimulating jobs and attracting higher domestic and foreign investments into the rural areas.
“When that happens, Africa will have taken its rightful place as a global powerhouse in food production. It could well also be feeding the world. At this point the economic transformation that we are all working for will be complete” adds Akinwumi.
PNAS research approves the AfDB initiative but adds that the expansion of land area to grow crops is vital to meet growing demand. The path to self-sufficiency for Africa will likely require, in addition to yield gap closure, increased cropping intensity and expansion of irrigated production area in regions that can support these options in a sustainable manner the research added.
Even so, sustainable food production will also mean erasing cross-border restrictions on the food trade within the African continent according to World Bank’s Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing barriers to regional trade in food staples report.
A woman farming in Ndop, Bamenda. PHOTO/ARISON TAMFU
“Africa has the ability to grow and deliver good quality food but, this potential is not being realized because farmers face more trade barriers in getting their food to market than anywhere else in the world. Too often borders get in the way of getting food to homes and communities which are struggling with too little to eat,” says Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Africa.
According to the Bank, the continent would generate an extra US$20 billion in yearly earnings if African leaders can agree to dismantle trade barriers that blunt more regional dynamism.
Additionally, African smallholder farmers continue to battle with the devastating consequences of climate change on their crops.But they can find a lot of hope in a simple SMS technology. In Ghana for example, a private communication company, Esoko, is helping farmers access tips on weather, better farming methods and market prices.
“What we gain from Esoko is immeasurable. They alert us with prices in markets nationwide, tell me whatever I produce I can send it there to sell and get interest. They also help us with weather forecasts too,” a farmer told Ghana’s Citi FM radio after using the app.
Africa needs more of such initiatives to help small farmersaccess data on crops, weather and soil in the face of climate change.
Until then, Theresa dreams of a day things will return to normal just like in the old days.
“We are asking the government to help us revamp Ndop rice by providing tolls and fertilizer. We want to be able to earn a decent living from cultivating rice again. Cameroonians should also be encouraged to consume our rice” she says opening the pot on fire to check whether the rice is ready.
And yes, the rice is set!Sonia is served and she quickly sits down to appease her troubled appetite. Bon appétit.
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