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OPINION: Facing multiple food and health crises, Africa must lead boldly

Thursday, 12 May 2022 05:28 GMT

FILE PHOTO: A farmer shows rice grains after harvesting them from a field in the province of Al-Sharkia, northeast of Cairo, Egypt, September 21, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Africa’s leaders to rally together for urgent, practical responses to protect the most vulnerable from a tsunami of shocks undermining the livelihoods of millions

Agnes Kalibata is the UN Secretary General's Special Envoy to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and an Ambassador of the Food and Land Use Coalition. Wanjira Mathai is the Regional Director for Africa at the World Resources Institute and an Ambassador of the Food and Land Use Coalition.

The world is in crisis, and it would be easy to be dismayed by what lies ahead for so many of us.

In Africa, the last five years have been a roller coaster with COVID-19, climate and conflict undermining progress and compounding an already dire humanitarian situation in many regions.

Over 27 million people are going hungry in West-Africa due to drought and conflict. Supply chains have been disrupted. Fertiliser prices are skyrocketing. We need Africa’s leaders to rally together for urgent, practical responses to protect the most vulnerable. 

The war in Ukraine has sent fuel and food prices to record levels. Some African countries have been getting more than 60% of their wheat imports from Russia and Ukraine and many are beginning to feel the impacts of shortages.

This is a tsunami of shocks undermining the livelihoods of millions and years’ worth of development gains.

As we respond, our first priority must be to reduce hunger, and food and nutrition insecurity. There are already more than 280 million hungry people in Africa with severe situations in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, Madagascar and Eastern Africa, where changing climate, locust infestations, and conflict are driving hunger. 

For the most affected countries, immediate and sustained humanitarian aid will save lives.

As some countries impose export bans and private sector hoarding occurs due to speculation, the global community must ensure trade stays open, as it is a key contributor to fighting hunger. 

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement, when optimized, can help reduce dependence on imports, deliver better prices for farmers, and lower the carbon footprint of food by reducing loss and waste. At present, significant volumes of food – estimated at US$4 billion dollars’ worth of grains alone – are lost every year.

This exceeds the value of the total food aid received in Sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade.

Africa has an opportunity to pursue diversified production systems to increase productivity and strengthen resilience. African leaders can prevent this crisis from becoming a disaster by ensuring farmers have the means to sow the next crop to build stronger resilience for agriculture systems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports Africa’s agricultural productivity growth has been reduced by 34% since 1961 due to climate change, more than any other region.

Yet only 0.2% of the roughly $600 billion global climate-related finance issued annually is directed to supporting small-scale farmers, agri-entrepreneurs and value chains in Africa. The continent can no longer afford to postpone investment in resilience.

The government of Egypt’s call for COP27 to focus strongly on adaptation finance, loss and damage, agriculture and food systems is welcome. We expect this COP on African soil to trigger decisive commitments and action on our most pressing challenges. Countries must urgently put in place plans and programmes needed to turn funding into real practical measures on the ground.

Across Africa, governments, SMEs, investors, and communities can take steps to build greater resilience into policies, investments, and agricultural practices with a special focus on small-scale farmers, who are strong potential engines for growth.

To do so would also be to recognize climate change impacts already locked in for decades to come will require the transformation of local food systems at a scope and scale little appreciated thus far.

Our third priority must be to promote and restore nature across the continent.

We cannot address concurrent climate, hunger and biodiversity crises without changing the way we manage our natural resources and produce food. Since 1980, Africa has expanded farmland by more than 130%. The current price pressures and limited access to fertilizers will inevitably lead to more forests being cut to make way for more planting grounds, making things even worse.

Africa must achieve sustainable and inclusive rural development in critical food-basket regions, while protecting key ecosystems, like the Congo Basin. Science but also local knowledge held by producer communities should inform our public choices, deliver dignity, sustainable agriculture and viable livelihoods while preserving the continent’s biodiverse rainforests.

We also need to commit to ensuring permanent protection of key biodiversity areas, and pursue wide scale landscape restoration across Africa, by channeling major flows of finance to communities on the front line of nature restoration efforts to succeed. Finally, we need to rediscover and advance what we Africans have practiced for centuries - sustainable and regenerative practices.

Let 2022 be a year of decisive action and leadership. We call on our leaders to be bold and to act with passion, pride and purpose to change the narrative to one of prosperity for all. We have what it takes and cannot afford to slide back and lose our hard-won progress.