AGRA President Dr. Agnes Kalibata says the Russia – Ukraine war is a wake-up call for Africa’s food systems. She says the rising cost of food as a result of the war should make Africa realize that there are vast business opportunities in the food sector on the continent. She says difficulties in importing food due to the war should encourage Africans to focus on the continent for its food needs. “The Russia-Ukraine war and COVID crisis have been a wake-up call to help us understand how our dependencies on food can be easily disrupted, but our hands are not tied – we can do something about it!” Dr. Kalibata said in an interview with the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
“Like the rest of the world, this is an opportunity to make farming highly productive. Let’s wake up to the fact that investing in securing food is in our interest, it is good business, and it is critical to strengthen the resilience of our systems. Politically, leaders are now waking up to this,” she added.
Dr. Kalibata said a lot of wealth can be generated from the African continent in the food sector without having to rely on other countries. “How many people really knew that the wheat we had in our homes came from Russia or Ukraine? What the combined impact of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war did was expose the weaknesses of global supply chains and our dependencies. Many of the value chains and trade systems on which we have relied have been thrown into question,” she observed.
“But every dark cloud has a silver lining and Africa is waking up to its potential and the need to produce more food as a result of these crises,” she added.
“Today in Ethiopia, they have decided to double down on wheat, due to the Ukraine crisis. This has led to $800mn of savings in foreign exchange, since they no longer need to buy so much wheat from abroad. In the end, success is attributable to a public commitment to spend in the agricultural sector and create an enabling environment for the private sector. It’s a double-pronged approach,” she observed. She urged other African countries to follow Ethiopia’s lead.
Dr. Kalibata says this Russia-Ukraine crisis cannot be looked at in isolation from the climate crisis. The rise in prices of food is both a result of the war but also climate change, because food has become much more expensive. Africa has not had so many hungry people and the cost-of-living crisis is impacting everyone. Drought is becoming more frequent, the rains less predictable, and yields have been steadily going down. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimates a 34% loss of yields in Africa since 1961, she said.
Huge food import bill
Dr. Kalibata observed that currently, Africa imports $50bn of food each year. But this is food the continent could produce locally. Of the $50 billion, $18 billion is spent by sub-Saharan Africa to buy four crops that it can produce itself. African countries have largely treated the agriculture sector as subsistence-based, missing its huge economic and great business future. The sector currently generates revenues of $300bn but this could easily triple to become a trillion-dollar industry if we designed it right.
“If you have 80% of the population involved in agriculture – it goes without saying that supporting farmers gain access to improved seeds and appropriate fertilizers, alongside extension and markets, has a direct correlation to farmers thriving,” she said.
The AGRA boss says said Africa needs stronger food systems and the continent must build resilience into these systems to reduce exposure to shock. “When there is a global shock, we’re all shaken out. Look at the Russia-Ukraine crisis – we were all shaken out, including food value chains. We have largely stayed afloat because of the continent’s inherent resilient capacity anchored in a huge diversity of crops, and production systems,” she said.
“African Continental Free Trade Area does give us something to build on to increase trade within the continent – Africa right now depends on something like 17% of internal trade as compared with more than 70% elsewhere. So you can see Africa is a long way behind. We need to catch up and get to 50-60% of intra-African trade. We can do this. Most of this food can be produced here,” Dr. Kalibata said.