Urgent action needed to transform Africa’s food systems

Emissions, hunger, biodiversity and nutrition are all heading in the wrong direction. Innovative solutions and immediate action needed to transform Africa’s food systems, says the head of policy, advocacy and food systems at AGRA.

Opinion by

Image : Nikish H/peopleimages.com

As the global call for sustainable and equitable food systems grows louder, Africa stands at a crossroads. Initiatives like the UN Food Systems Summit and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have ignited momentum for change. However, the path to transforming Africa’s food systems is marred by challenges that demand innovative solutions and our immediate attention.

As the world’s political and business leaders gather in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for the Africa Food Systems Forum Summit 2023 from 5 to 8 September, the biggest puzzle in transforming Africa’s Food Systems remains governance issues. The crossroads is a choice between policy and political intricacies surrounding why Africa must change course to transform food systems.

The need to transform food systems is urgent. The 2023 edition of AGRA’s Africa Agricultural Status Report (2023) on the status of Africa’s Food Systems is unequivocal in stating that we are not on the right track. Emissions, hunger, biodiversity, nutrition among other key metrics are all heading in the wrong direction. Paradoxically, food systems governance indicators (such as civil society engagement, food systems pathways and plans, and food systems accountability) portray a relatively positive trend, except the governance effectiveness index – signifying that something is not right. Furthermore, society remains divided over what action is needed to drive and accelerate transformative solutions.

The recent pandemic and crises have changed expectations. They have also raised the bar on the role of governments in responding to food security challenges, especially because we’ve seen that when there’s political will, governments can unleash transformative amounts of capital.

Three factors slowing transformation

The transition to a more sustainable food system faces strong headwinds and is being slowed by several factors:

First, countries are broke. Responding to the recent crises caused significant monetary and fiscal constraints on government budgets and so there is little public cash to spend on accelerating food system change.

Secondly, investments are fewer than required. The end of the era of low interest rates and cheap capital means less funding for inputs, markets and food systems including climate change solutions.

Thirdly and in a more positive note, people are ready for change. The food system has already been through a crisis and people now want stability. There is political pressure to rein in rising costs and inflation for citizens while minimising the impact of future supply chain disruptions for local businesses.

Coherent policy needed

Governments and business leaders must be committed to charting an integrated and coherent policy pathway, i.e., the multiplicity of perspectives among stakeholders/interested parties, causes policy directions to become fragmented. Governments must be ready to navigate the maze of influencing factors – policy decisions are ensnared in a web of complex factors, often pulling in opposing directions.

Crafting policies that consider diverse perspectives while aligning with the greater good is difficult. For example, striking a balance between sustainability and equity, because it is not only about increasing production, but also about upholding environmental health and ensuring justice for all. Devising policies that not only safeguard ecosystems, but also address inequalities that are entrenched in the food system is not easy.

One way of ensuring that this balance is maintained is by building policy coherency around commonly agreed outcomes. Governments and organisations can improve their efficiency in solving complex issues and attaining desired objectives by building a framework that ensures policies function in harmony. It is important to examine how the various policies can interact with each other in order to identify which policies have synergies, whereby their effect is better when combined, compared with individual policies that could cause conflicts.

When coming up with policies that favour all parties, it is crucial to have data backing the decision-making process. Data on food production, distribution, and consumption trends as well as environmental elements that have an impact on food systems must be gathered and examined. The various stakeholders can then apply this data to pinpoint areas for development and create policies that are supported by facts and encourage sustainable food systems in Africa.

Lastly, there is a need to adopt capacity building and knowledge transfer when trying to transform Africa’s food systems. We can successfully address the biggest policy puzzle impeding the sustainable growth of the continent’s agriculture and food sectors by focusing on integrated and coherent policy decisions.

Policymakers and stakeholders can acquire the abilities and information needed to create and put into practice policies that support innovation, productivity, and sustainability in the food system through capacity development initiatives. Initiatives to transfer knowledge can also help different stakeholders to collaborate and co-operate by facilitating the sharing of best practices and lessons learned. Together, these initiatives can help make Africa more resilient, diverse, and food secure.

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Boaz Blackie Keizire

Boaz Blackie Keizire is head of policy, advocacy & food systems at AGRA and head of the Africa Food Prize Secretariat.