* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.24 March 2014, Tunis - Despite important economic progress and agricultural successes, Africa remains the world's most food insecure continent, with relatively low levels of agricultural productivity, low rural incomes, and high rates of malnutrition, FAO said today.As the Organization's 28th Regional Conference for Africa gathers in Tunis, FAO is calling on African ministers of agriculture for action in priority areas to accelerate increased investment and broad-based transformation in support of smallholder farmers, including rural youth and women. Africa has recorded continuous economic growth since 1999, accompanied by improved governance and human development indicators. Currently, seven out of the top ten fastest growing economies in the world are situated in Africa, and the International Monetary Fund estimates that economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa will be 6.1 percent in 2014.Africa's annual total GDP grew on average by 4.8 percent in 2000-2010, up from 2.1 percent in the previous decade, and the agricultural sector's growth rates in the same time period were 3.2 percent and 3.0 percent respectively.The continent has achieved a series of agricultural successes in major areas, including the intensification of staple food production, improved varieties of banana in eastern and central Africa, high-yielding varieties of maize in east and southern Africa, and productivity gains in cotton production in Burkina Faso and Mali and in tea and floriculture in East Africa."The question is how African leaders can build on this progress by providing stable agriculture and fiscal policies that encourage investment, as committed 10 years ago in the Maputo Declaration, and strengthen governance and accountability mechanisms that contribute to more systemic implementation of policies and programmes," said Bukar Tijani, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Africa."These actions are critical to trigger a transformation in the capacity of countries to deliver sustained and broad-based agricultural growth and development."The Conference will advocate for providing the enabling environment to end hunger in the continent by 2025. It will primarily focus on sustainably increasing the potential of agriculture, fisheries, livestock and forestry as a source of employment and income for African youth, women and men who engage in these sectors for food and nutrition security as well as agri-business ventures aimed at increasing family incomes. The status and trends of agriculture, food and nutrition in AfricaTrends in per capita food production have been generally positive over recent decades. On average, agricultural production in Africa has increased slightly less than 1 percent per year, compared with about 2 percent in developing countries. While Africa experienced high instability in food price levels, per capita food production was more stable over time and variability was relatively low compared to other regions, such as Asia or Latin America.But despite the overall progress made on hunger and malnutrition in Africa over the past decades, absolute levels of hunger and undernourishment remain worrying in sub-Saharan Africa, FAO said. FAO estimates that poverty rates in Africa declined marginally from 56 percent in 1990 to 49 percent in 2010, leaving 388 million in extreme poverty and approximately 239 million chronically undernourished in the continent. The food security situation in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa continues to be of particular concern.By 2012, Africa as a continent had made the least progress in reducing poverty. The 2012 United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Report states that Africa is 41 percent "off" the first MDG poverty target versus 25 percent in South Asia and 6.1 percent in Latin America. However, 11 African countries have already met the first MDG hunger target to reduce by half the proportion of hungry people between 1990 and 2015 (see box right). Three countries - Djibouti, Ghana, and São Tomé and Príncipe - have also met the even more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit goal to reduce by half the total number of hungry.Enabling environment for investmentIn order to compete successfully with imports in their own growing domestic and regional agribusiness markets, African farmers and agribusinesses will need to improve value chain efficiency at all levels, FAO said.The Organization underscored that there are significant opportunities for accelerating smallholder-driven agriculture and agri-business in Africa as the basis for transforming and commercializing the sector.Due to rapid urbanization, around 40 percent of Africa's population is now living in urban areas and consuming approximately 50 percent of the total food, boosting the importance of rural-urban food supply chains.Policy-makers should see this urban market as at least as much of an opportunity as the export market, particularly since it is more accessible to small family farms and firms, the Organization stressed.Numerous and interesting examples of the dynamic growth of rural-urban supply chains and agri-food systems can be found throughout the continent including: millers-cum-retailers of teff in Addis Ababa markets; the millet supply chain in Senegal with the rise in branded, packaged millet and millet-cum-dairy products for the Dakar market and for export; the chicken supply chain in urban Nigeria, Mozambique and many other African countries, giving rise to a wide range of local and regional poultry companies; and the rapid rise of dairy processing companies, linked to small farmers, in Kenya and Zambia. Concerted efforts are needed to assist a broader set of asset-poor family farms gain access to agricultural inputs, affordable credit, rural services and extension information that allows them to take advantage of the growing market. Innovative social protection and risk management programmes are also required to address the particular constraints of smallholder farmers, FAO said.Sustaining CAADP momentumWith a view to enhancing FAO contributions to the implementation of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) at country, regional and continental levels, the Organization undertook important activities in 2013 towards strengthening and aligning capacity on CAADP activities for 2014 and 2015. In July 2013, FAO collaborated with the African Union Commission and Lula Institute to host a High-Level Meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, "Toward African Renaissance: Renewed Partnership for Unified Approach to End Hunger in Africa by 2025 within the CAADP Framework". The Declaration of the High-Level Meeting – which was also endorsed at the January 2014 African Union Summit - urges African heads of state to end hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition on the continent by 2025. The High-Level Meeting roadmap recommends joint actions to mainstream and operationalize the Partnership for a Renewed Unified Approach to End Hunger in Africa through CAADP, implemented primarily with its own resources and with the assistance of technical and development partners.The Africa Solidarity Trust Fund for Food Security was meanwhile officially launched during the 38th Session of the FAO Conference in June 2013. The fund currently has $40 million, to initially support projects in Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali and Niger. The major contributions so far come from Equatorial Guinea and Angola. The Fund is one of the few Africa-led innovative mechanisms of mobilizing resources from Africa for Africa.FAO's Regional Conference for Africa is taking place from 24-28 March in the Tunisian capital. In total, 54 African member countries will participate in the conference, 30 of which will be represented at ministerial level. In addtion, Austria, China, the Dominican Republic, France, Italy, India, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States of America as well as the Holy See will attend as observers.