Food Security in Africa: “We Are Bringing Short Term Responses to Long Term Problems”

What are the long-term problems that need to be addressed and what solutions are out there?

Version en français ici

Professor Kako Nubukpo is Commissioner for Agriculture, Water and Environment at the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU, also known by its French acronym UEMOA) and a former Minister of Prospective and Evaluation of public policy in Togo. He recently authored, Une solution pour l’Afrique. Du néoprotectionnisme aux biens communs, published by Odile Jacob Press. In this interview, he considers the economic and social impacts of the Ukraine conflict on food security in Africa.

African economies are facing high levels of inflation due to big price increases for many basic goods, following the invasion of Ukraine. How far might this crisis represent an opportunity to rethink agricultural policies in Africa?

Kako Nubukpo: It seems to me that there are two specific lessons we should take from the current crisis. First is the question of how to increase agricultural production, and the inputs needed. The enormous increase in the cost of chemical inputs pushes us very naturally towards other options, such as agroecological intensification. Let’s take an example – the price of potassium has quadrupled in the last year, and we’ve gone from being able to buy it at US$ 200/ton in June 2021 to US$ 840/ton in August 2022. No farmer has the means, nor would any government have the ability to offer subsidies for potassium at this price. But, at the same time, we have considerable unused potential. For example, leguminous crops like the cowpea, Acacia, groundnuts, and soya have an extraordinary ability to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil, on which you can then build a productive rotation of cereal crops. Inter-cropping has great potential – take millet and cowpea, sorghum and groundnuts, or maize and soya.

Africa has plenty of these leguminous crops, which means that agricultural productivity can grow without having to rely on greater use of chemical fertilizer. I don’t really dare speak of an agroecological transition in Africa because we currently use such a small quantity - only 25kg/ha of chemical fertilizer, in comparison with 250kg/ha on average across the world and 350kg/ha in China. Africa is thus the most ecological continent in the world today, so most of all, it should be other countries that need to go through the agroecology transition. We should maintain and improve our farming practices – how and when to sow and harvest and follow up with better farming techniques. The current crisis shows the importance of Africa building on its own potential - this is what I find most interesting.

The second lesson relates to our towns and cities, where food consumption relies heavily on imported cereals, especially wheat which has seen prices escalate. Providing people with their daily bread has become really expensive. Even other imported foodstuffs have gone up a lot in price. We should be giving priority to the consumption of local crops; for example. For breakfast let’s go back to eating a bowl of millet porridge, or of sorghum, or maize. We dropped this tradition, in favor of imported grains. These two lessons point clearly to the need for much greater self-reliance, in both the crops we grow and the food we eat.

How do you assess the measures that different African governments have put in place to try to respond to this crisis?

It seems to me that short-term responses are being put in place to deal with mid- to long-term problems, which is understandable given the urgency of the immediate. What are the long-term problems that need to be addressed? There are three – the first of which we have already discussed, that’s to say the increase needed in farm productivity. As for the other two, we need to start by ensuring our agricultural systems have access to a broad range of services, such as access to credit, insurance, post-harvest storage, and effective rural road networks, so that surplus areas can feed their crops to deficit regions. Farmer organizations need to play a greater role, to allow them to benefit from a better share in agricultural value chains, and to feed into more coherent policymaking.

If we see the huge reliance on large volumes of imported wheat, we have to recognize another big hurdle that relates to the dismantling of tariffs by many of our countries. Take the UEMOA zone, for example, for which there is a maximum external tariff of 20%, effectively making the whole zone open to goods from elsewhere. Africa has the most open trade terms in the whole world. But this provides no kind of incentive to farmers to produce more, it is really inconsistent with a policy seeking to support our farmers, since our trade policy of opening the door to global competition makes it increasingly difficult for farmers to survive, let alone prosper. We have got to address the incoherence in different aspects of public policy. We must ask ourselves what we want to achieve with our agricultural policy – is it to stabilize crop and food prices? Is it to ensure that farmers get a reasonable income? Or both of these?

In the past, Europeans have sought to stabilize prices within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy, while the US has gone for stabilizing farm incomes, regardless of prices. Hence, incomes are decoupled from prices, and farmers receive revenue support directly into their bank accounts, thereby helping less prosperous farmers to survive, regardless of fluctuating crop prices, which may not even cover the costs of production – hence the need for subsidies. We have to recognize that today we’re facing very unjust competition, given that the average US farmer for example receives subsidies 820 times larger than those in Tanzania. A farmer in the US gets US$37,000 a year compared with US$46 in Tanzania. When you add these huge differences in farm payments to the existing wide gap in productivity between North and South, which can range from 400 to 1, you begin to understand why Africa must protect its agricultural sector.

How far does the CFA franc, the currency used within the WAEMU zone, constitute a brake on economic performance, especially in the farming sector, within this monetary zone?

The current challenge for West Africa is to know which would be the best monetary and financial vehicle for developing the regional market, and more broadly across the whole continent. Let’s remember that today we are 1.3bn people on the continent, the population is doubling every 25 years, we’ll be more than 2bn in 2050, and the world as a whole will be turning to Africa’s great market potential. However, we currently have no effective monetary and financial vehicle to ensure we gain the best value from this extraordinary potential, which has no parallel elsewhere in the world. At the same time, we have 40% of our people under the age of 15, with an enormous demand for education, health, training, equipment, and infrastructure.

The monetary system we have today – the CFA franc – is a system devoted to the extraversion, or outward bias, of the economy. It encourages the export of commodities without any value added. The CFA franc with its stability and fixed rate against the Euro, its guarantee of convertibility, and free movement of capital is ideally suited to this external focus for the economy, but this should not be the model of the future. Whatever the institutional monetary arrangements, our biggest task is to design a monetary system that supports the structural transformation of our economies – it’s a really big challenge.

What are the measures you would like to see introduced within the WAEMU zone, such as ensuring access to land, responding to climate change, or addressing the repercussions of jihadist activity across the Sahel?

Whether in the North or South, conventional agriculture based on chemicals and mechanization poses major risks to the environment. Given the inherent vulnerability of Africa’s tropical soils, the tension between productivist methods and the environment is particularly evident. Nevertheless, most of Africa’s farmers – whether men or women or herders - do not in fact have access to agrochemicals or mechanization, due to poverty and their lack of resources. Soils have been losing their fertility, and salinization of irrigated land is a growing problem, though less so than for the green revolution regions in the Indian subcontinent. We’ve also seen a green revolution tried out in parts of East Africa, with governments expending large sums plus support from the Gates Foundation, but without the hoped-for results.

We need to find ways to avoid further degradation of farmland, pasture, and of forested areas, whether for the production of foodstuffs, for the climate, or for peace across the continent. Agricultural production has continued to expand given the rapid growth in human numbers, thanks to both conventional means of tillage, and through deforestation and clearance of land – whether pasture or forest areas. The ongoing conflicts in many parts of the Sahel have evident roots in the tensions between herders and farmers, along with high levels of poverty in rural areas, a legacy of structural adjustment, and the impact of neo-liberal policies.

We face an unprecedented combination of five interlinked crises. There is a climate crisis that is pushing Sahelian populations southwards towards the humid forest areas and coastal mangrove zones, which is creating intolerable pressures on many ecosystems, such as mangrove areas, and national parks, like the W Park in Niger, the Arly Park in Burkina Faso, and the Pendjari park in northern Benin – together its what we call the WAP triangle. It is suffering tremendous pressure on resources.

We’re experiencing an ongoing health crisis, demonstrating the blind spot that health occupies in most parts of Africa. There is the security crisis, which generates many problems with production, given that in some areas the farmers have been chased off their land. As a consequence, we’re really worried about the harvests in both Mali and Burkina Faso since there have been many farmers unable to cultivate this year. The fourth one is a political crisis which is visible in the series of coup d’états we have witnessed in several Sahelian states, and the fifth is the Russia-Ukraine crisis with its associated escalation in food and other prices. When you have so many different crises at the same time, it’s really hard to know how best to respond, and how to balance short and medium-term measures.

In the short term, we need to provide massive subsidies for farmers, but not for buying agrochemicals. Let’s encourage natural inputs, such as manure, compost, and other organic matter, and build more effective linkages between animals and crops, between farmers and herders. The use of livestock transhumance routes to channel herds through agricultural areas can protect crops from damage, and ensure we get this natural fertilization of soils, avoiding the tension which otherwise arises between herders and farmers. We’re exploring at the moment possibilities for greater forage production in the Sahel, so that transhumant movements can be better managed. This could help in those countries where it is just not possible to let cattle herds wander freely. In those areas where there is much insecurity, there have also been cases where animals have been stolen from pastoralists in order to be resold to jihadist groups, such as Boko Haram.

I think we absolutely have to subsidize African agriculture. To do this effectively, we’ll need both chemical and organic fertilizers. As a starting point, the UEMOA Commission has proposed to member states, at the latest meeting of the Committee for food security held in Niger in June 2022, that a certain number of very practical steps should be taken, such as the bulk ordering of fertilizers. Currently, each country puts in a separate order for chemical fertilizer, and thus cannot get a good price on world markets. Pooling these orders would provide scale and market power. We need to put in orders now because, even if you order today, you won’t get delivery for at least 6 months, even when you have the money to pay.

We’ve also asked them to replenish the Regional Funds for Agricultural Development which we have been piloting at UEMOA because this fund has been at a standstill since 2018. The Fund is aimed at addressing those problems which can’t be properly dealt with by individual member states but need a collective approach, hence the need for intervention instruments at the regional level. We added a request that countries avoid closing their borders to each other, to encourage the free movement of agricultural goods, as we can see that deficit regions have an urgent need for additional food supplies. So guaranteed movement of people and goods within the region is really vital. There is also the question of subsidies, as we have seen examples where inputs meant for one country end up being taken over the border to a neighboring state. In December 2021, Benin requested a meeting of agricultural and trade ministers be held to address this problem, to avoid “free rider” problems of this sort, well-known to economists.

All these questions demand a lot of money, yet what we propose does not always get taken up by the international community. Take Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), for example, which were promised but African countries have still not received them. The SDRs we were allocated represent no more than 5% of the global total, despite us having 17% of the world population. Certain Northern countries, such as France, have demanded that SDRs allocated to western nations should be ceded to Africa. But even without going this far, we still want to get the share due to us. We need some fairly immediate extra-budgetary resources to give us room for maneuver, but we must also put to work our enormous youthful workforce because this is where we will gain the most increases in production.

We have the land resources needed – the latest report from INRAe on Africa’s farming futures tells us that we have 650mn hectares of arable land, not counting any forested areas. And even those who might argue with these figures agree that there are at least 50 million hectares of arable land which could be brought into production today. When you’ve got both land and labor, there is no reason for Africa not to become the next big world agricultural power, even basing its production on natural inputs. As a result, I am really optimistic about the future of farming in Africa, but we need to support it and protect it to avoid making the wrong choices. And in order to do so, the rights of farmers to access land must be made secure, through negotiation and protection of local rights – not only for farmland but also agroforestry, pasture lands, and common property resources.

This needs to be done in a way that responds to the particular characteristics and needs of a given area or territory, to strengthen beneficial and complementary use of resources, such as between herders and farmers, between indigenous people and protected areas, and between people seeking access to water. This is no small problem in many parts of Africa but needs to be founded on the strong, persistent collective traditions and making full use of the commons, as illustrated through the theories so clearly expounded by Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel prize for Economics in 2009.

Despite the urgency of making progress, none of this will happen rapidly without public investment in the human capital and equipment needed; it will need agricultural credit systems which had been abolished by structural adjustment in the 1980s; and it will need investment by the state in education, training and health services alongside decentralized systems of power, made possible by renewable energy technology. All these things will make it possible for life in rural areas to regain its dignity. This will need local capacities in the storage of crops, agri-food transformation, refrigeration, and transport of goods to market to address the very outward, import-focused pattern of urban consumption.

In such a manner, we will be able properly to feed African populations, who will have doubled in numbers by 2050, and we’ll preserve our common resources. We’ll be training and finding skilled jobs for the large number of young people in our towns and cities. We’ll be appeasing growing tensions between herders and farmers, to address this source of destructive instability. And we’ll be protecting the global climate, which relies on us – African women and men – to keep our emissions low, despite the slow recognition and payment for the many environmental services that our farmers are rendering the whole planet by not cutting down our forests to produce more.

Share your perspective