Out of conflict, a plan for Africa’s food security

A foreign war has exposed Africa’s dependence on food imports. Africa must find a way to drastically raise food production, write Patrick Verkooijen, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim and Akinwumi Adesina.

The victims of war are sometimes found far away from the battlefield. And so it is with Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. For while the fighting there is causing immeasurable suffering and destruction, it is also threatening a silent catastrophe in Africa.

The conflict has sent food prices soaring. This is hard for the 283 million people who are already going hungry on the continent. War in Ukraine has also exposed Africa’s chronic dependence on food imports. Wheat imports account for about 90 percent of Africa’s $4 billion trade with Russia and nearly half of the continent’s $4.5 billion trade with Ukraine. Sanctions against Russia have disrupted grain shipments at a time when global stockpiles were already tight. This is now raising the specter of mass starvation in a continent that depends on food imports to feed itself.

If ever there was a time to drastically raise food production in Africa, it is now.

In truth, Africa’s food crisis has been building for some time. Climate change is disrupting weather patterns and damaging agriculture, not only in Africa but in many parts of the world. This has also been a factor behind rocketing food prices, now at their highest in almost 50 years. Excepting war, climate change is perhaps the biggest threat to global food security. We urgently need long-term, sustainable solutions that allow agriculture to adapt to our warming planet.

In response, the African Development Bank and partners aim to mobilise $1 billion to boost the production of wheat and other crops in Africa. The goal is to help 40 million farmers increase their output of heat-tolerant wheat varieties, rice, soybeans and other crops to feed about 200 million people. Central to these efforts is the need to train farmers in new techniques that increase their resilience to the impacts of climate change. To feed a hungry and rapidly growing continent, farmers need to produce more food, with fewer resources, while confronting erratic weather patterns, floods, droughts, the spread of pathogens and the loss of biodiversity.

Thanks to the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program, an Africa-led initiative launched last year to reverse the continent’s vulnerability to climate change, the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA) and other development partners are already working to bring climate-resilient techniques to small-scale producers who grow most of Africa’s food.

The GCA estimates that investing to climate-proof African farms costs less than one-tenth of the damage inflicted by climate disasters, including crop losses, disaster relief, rebuilding roads and getting farmers back on their feet. For sub-Saharan Africa, these sunk costs are estimated at $201 billion a year, compared to the investments needed for climate adaptation in agriculture, which is estimated at $15 billion, again according to the GCA.

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa face the combined challenges of a rapidly changing climate, malnutrition and a growing population. They will need more resilient, productive and nutritious crops if they are to meet this challenge. Such change must happen quickly and at scale. In Africa, climate change could wipe out 15 percent of gross domestic product by 2030. This means an additional 100 million people forced into poverty by the end of the decade.

Protecting the continent’s rich biodiversity is a route to boosting agricultural yields and finding new crop varieties that are better suited to drier and hotter climates. Genebanks conserve thousands of important plant samples which scientists can use to develop better varieties, but for years they have suffered from insufficient funding and inadequate staffing, putting plant collections – and future food security – at risk.

The BOLD Project, run by the Crop Trust and funded by Norway and the European Union, provides financial and technical support for genebanks in Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana to reach international standards of operation, ensuring collections are safe – and available for use – over the long term.

With food prices climbing and supplies disrupted by conflict, Africa needs to harness as many climate-resilient solutions as it can, quickly and at scale, to stave off the threat of a catastrophic food crisis. Investing in climate adaptation for agriculture is the smartest, most cost-efficient way to guarantee the continent’s food security. There is no time to waste.

Patrick Verkooijen is CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation, Anne Beathe Tvinnereim is Norway’s Minister of International Development and Akinwumi Adesina is President of the African Development Bank