Increasing population, demand for food in Africa need urgent attention: Experts

Policies, mega plans by governments needed as 2023 priorities for action for food systems

By Tony Malesi
Published: Tuesday 03 January 2023
Policymakers must develop more resilient and sustainable food systems, including efficient production and diversity of inputs adapted to the evolution of local agroclimatic conditions, say experts. Photo: iStock
Policymakers must develop more resilient and sustainable food systems, including efficient production and diversity of inputs adapted to the evolution of local agroclimatic conditions, say experts. Photo: iStock Policymakers must develop more resilient and sustainable food systems, including efficient production and diversity of inputs adapted to the evolution of local agroclimatic conditions, say experts. Photo: iStock

Climate change is the most highlighted megatrend affecting the food systems of Africa. Environmental, demographic, economic and social factors like population growth and increasing food demand, however, also play a significant role in impacting the transformation of the systems, according to food security analysts and experts.

In its annual report on the state of agriculture and food security across the continent, 2022 Africa Agriculture Status Report, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) highlighted six megatrends and areas of priority for action. AGRA is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation and is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya. 

The food systems of the continent are in a precarious state of recovery and transformation following a relatively long period of disarray and disruption, the analysis found. 

Read more: UN Food Systems Summit: Sanctioning the status quo

This disruption, the report showed, is a result of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, emerging pests and diseases, extreme weather events, food price inflation and the war in Ukraine.

African governments and development partners should anticipate and proactively respond to six major environmental, demographic, economic and social megatrends, the report said.

Rural population growth and rising land scarcity

Africa continues to experience high rates of population growth. The continent’s rural population is projected to rise by an average of 53 per cent, which implies continued growth in demand for agricultural land and general land degradation.

“Moreover, a growing class of middle- and high-income urban-based Africans with an interest in commercialised farming has further intensified the demand for agricultural land. These forces have combined to create conditions of land scarcity,” read the report.

Rising urban population and increasing food demand

Africa’s urban populations are rising rapidly — even faster than rural areas. The report warned that “the combination of high population growth and rising incomes is creating explosive growth in food demand”.

The report urged governments to build capacity to expand the range of crops and animal products they produce to include high-value fruits and vegetables, among others.

Economic transformation, rising wage rates and per capita incomes

Economic development, especially increasing wages and incomes, will create challenges and opportunities for the continent’s food systems.

Africa’s growing middle class will lead to a rapid shift in the labour force from farming to non-farm jobs, which may encourage the move to labour-saving farm technologies and practices, according to experts at AGRA.

The experts said rising wages might also trigger diet changes, leading to increased demand for meat, fish, processed foods, cooking oil and foods prepared away from home.

Increasing extreme weather events

The report acknowledges that climate change is the single most systemic global environmental problem that affects all regions and socioeconomic divides. Africa will continue experiencing a heightened frequency and intensity of extreme rainfall events, including droughts, heavy rains and floods, said the analysis.

“Such events combined with chronically low public expenditure on agricultural research, development and extension will slow the pace of farm technical innovation and agricultural productivity growth on the continent,” it said.

Global health crises, regional conflicts and economic disruptions

The high incidence of acute food insecurity and malnutrition in numerous African countries starkly exposes the fragility of regional food systems.

Read more: Antimicrobial Awareness Week 2021: Nigeria’s challenges to implement action plan for food system protection

The increased frequency and severity of weather extremes, ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing conflict and insecurity and rising global food prices have not improved things.

Accelerated pace of innovation in communications and supply chains

While the rate of technical innovation across the agri-food value chain is lower in Africa compared to global trends, the continent is experiencing leapfrogging in digital agriculture.

“In most African countries, the rapid adoption of mobile phones and internet connectivity have accelerated the deployment of agricultural services for farmers and other value chain actors. This has resulted in enhanced access to information, knowledge, financial services, markets and farm tools,” noted the report.

Priorities for action in 2023

Governments must go beyond the AGRA report, according to Okwako Mpapale, an expert and researcher at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari). 

Governments and development partners across the continent must be deliberate in boosting food security, including implementing effective policies and fully funding agriculture, he said.

“The biggest area of concern remains climate change. Authorities must realise that rain-fed agriculture is no longer tenable and embrace and prioritise irrigation, especially among smallholder farmers,” said Mpapale.  

Sustainable food systems need to be set up and smallholder farmers need to be empowered to increase productivity and use innovative technology.

“By embracing research and technology and increasing funding to such subsectors, we will have an easy time producing more food with reduced costs, especially if governments enlist the services of agricultural extension officers to work hand in hand with farmers,” said Mpapale.

More experts added their voices to the AGRA report, with agriculture and food security consultant Joseph Beyo expressing worry about the continent’s spiralling population.

“As soon as 2030, Africa will experience a population explosion and a lack of food will compound the crisis. This might result in malnutrition and other deadly ailments. We don’t want to get there,” warned Beyo.

The population burst would have far-reaching implications, including environmental degradation, especially after converting forests and grasslands into farmlands, Beyo said in a phone interview. The consultant is also a farmer in Western Kenya. 

“Governments must move with speed and put in place policies and mega plans to triple their agricultural productivity to feed the ever-growing population to avoid a situation of over-dependence on imports,” said Beyo.

Read more: CoP26 report card: Agriculture continues to remain subterranean even in Glasgow

Policies are necessary because unplanned agrarian expansion into human settlements and wildlife spaces will result in habitat loss and other far-reaching consequences on the environment and ecosystems, he said. 

“Boosting food insecurity will have several benefits, like fostering peace and security as people fight for scarce resources like productive land, water and pasture,” said Beyo.

The overall consensus from the experts is that policymakers must develop more resilient and sustainable food systems, including efficient production and diversity of inputs adapted to the evolution of local agroclimatic conditions.

Still, all these suggestions would be useless if African governments don’t invest in rural infrastructure and logistics to avert postharvest losses, according to experts.

Last but not least, the mainstream view from the analysts is that the authorities must build resilient supply chains and strengthen intraregional trade infrastructure linking production, processing and consumption regions or markets.

Read more: 

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.