South Africa topples Tunisia as most food secure — what are the lessons for sub–Saharan Africa

Governments must employ multi-pronged approach to ensure affordability, availability, quality and safety of food

By Tony Malesi
Published: Thursday 15 December 2022
South Africa exports food to every country in the continent apart from Cape Verde Islands and the Republic of Eritrea. Photo: iStock
South Africa exports food to every country in the continent apart from Cape Verde Islands and the Republic of Eritrea. Photo: iStock South Africa exports food to every country in the continent apart from Cape Verde Islands and the Republic of Eritrea. Photo: iStock

South Africa is now the most food-secure country in Africa despite numerous global threats to agriculture, including climate change, according to a new report. The country’s achievement may show the way to other struggling countries in the region.

This is the first time a country in sub-Saharan Africa has topped the list across the continent.

The country has made a record leap from 70th position in 2021 to 59th on the 2022 Global Food Security Index (GFSI) report by British weekly The Economist. South Africa toppled Tunisia in the continent, which is now in second place and 62nd globally among 113 countries eligible for the ranking.

Read more: Climate change eats into output of top 10 food crops

“Besides feeding its over 60 million citizens, the farmers of South Africa provided food for millions of people from other countries in southern Africa. Apart from Cape Verde Islands and the Republic of Eritrea, the nation exports her food to every African country,” read the report.

From January 2022 through August 2022, South Africa’s export of agricultural products rose by more than 20 per cent and 22 per cent for processed foods, the study further stated.

The country’s agriculture and food industries boosted its trade surplus by a record R10 billion (Rs 478.67 crore) from R51 billion last year to more than R60 billion in 2022 in the process.

South Africa’s productivity amid the fertiliser crisis brought on by the Ukraine-Russia conflict is impressive and has governments, policymakers and even farmers of other countries in the region curious.

Over reliance on erratic rain-fed agriculture with little or no alternatives like irrigation has led to famine in other countries, according to Jane Wairimu, a small-scale farmer and foodstuff wholesaler in Kiambu County, Kenya, East Africa.

“Times have changed terribly (due to climate change) and agriculture is now a trial-and-error affair. We would get an average of 20 bags of maize from an acre piece of land earlier. Today, you will be lucky to get seven bags due to failed rains,” said the farmer.

Eggs, onions and other food items stocked by wholesalers are imported from neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, she added. However, they have already received warnings of higher prices due to an increase in the cost of production.

Like Wairimu, other Kenyan food producers, including animal farmers and cereals producers like Henry Ledama from Kajiado County, Kenya, expressed deep worries over the “lack of government involvement.”

Read more: Africa at highest risk of climate change; agricultural production under threat

“Government subsidies on fertiliser is a great move, but they must also subsidise other farm inputs like seeds and pesticides. Post-harvest losses are also a major concern. The government must double funding in agriculture to build capacity in us to necessitate large-scale production,” said Ledama, an animal farmer.

Experts and regional bodies concerned with food security have warned that governments must employ a deliberate multi-pronged approach to ensure not just affordability but availability, quality and safety of food.

The solution to food security must be multi-sectoral and require the involvement of governments and development partners, according to Abebe Haile-Gabriel, the regional representative for Africa at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“FAO has a new strategic framework through sub-regional initiatives aimed at helping governments formulate effective agricultural policies, build resilience in agriculture and develop strong agribusiness value chains,” said Abebe.

The food security expert added that governments must work hand in hand with FAO in developing higher standards to boost food production and quality of produce.

Abebe, who is an Ethiopian national, said they must also share best practices in agriculture and food security to eradicate hunger in Africa by 2025.

He said having an expanded variety of produce and doing away with trade, tariff, and non-tariff barriers will help reduce high levels of global protectionism.

Beyond South African farmers, food producers in sub-Saharan Africa can learn from the best practices in high-income European countries that topped the GFSI list, like Finland, Ireland, and Norway.

Read more: Food and Nutrition Security in Southern African Cities

“Governments and farmers must innovate to build resilience against threats like climate vagaries. Nations where farmers have higher access to affordable agricultural inputs and financial support or where government invested in innovative technology and had a strong supply chain infrastructure got higher global food security score,” read the report in part.

The countries in which farmers had access to affordable agricultural inputs have been the biggest gainers in the index since 2019, especially commitments to “empowering female farmers (jumping 18.4 per cent) and access to agricultural technology, education, and resources (up by 10.1 per cent)”, the report said.

Sub-Saharan Africa must invest in climate-resilient infrastructure and modern technology to ease food transportation and help accurately forecast extreme weather events, experts said. This is key is averting losses during food production.

Read more: 

Future of food: World won’t be able to feed itself without wider systemic change, says FAO

Climate resilience: Kenyan farmers are adapting to extreme weather by growing indigenous crops

Here is how India can eradicate malnutrition, hunger, food insecurity by 2030

Foodgrains from the Centre to states fell by almost four million tonnes in last three years: Data

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