Food insecurity starves Africa of progress

Food security image
Food security image

Two years ago, a woman in Turkana slaughtered her two dogs to feed her starving family. Having lost three children to hunger, Akai Ekomua had to do the unthinkable to save her remaining two children, a local daily reported on January 29, 2014. She was generous enough to share the dog meat with her dying neighbours.

Kenya was facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, in counties including Kwale, Garissa, Mandera, Marsabit, Moyale, Pokot, Turkana and Wajir. A survey by the National Drought Management Authority, indicated that more than 346,000 Turkanas were in dire need of food and water.

This year, following the unusually strong El Niño rains, coupled with record-high temperatures afterwards, the UN has warned that about 36 million people across southern and eastern Africa face hunger. Worst hit will be Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. Hunger is a problem that won’t go away, not just for Kenya but for Africa and developing countries worldwide. Food security is a situation whereby all people have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food at all times to meet their day-to-day dietary needs for an active and healthy life.

Link to poverty

Governments in developing countries have struggled to achieve, let alone sustain, food security. The global food system is inter-connected and dependent on natural factors, including soil, precipitation, water availability and climate. It is also influenced by international trade, urbanisation, changing demographics, energy, water and land use policy. Its link to health complicates it further.

The UN’s Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development initiative, estimates that about 790 million people living in developing countries, mostly in Africa, are undernourished, compared to 34 million people in industrialised countries. This is a major drawback to sustainable development. Several initiatives have been rolled out to raise global awareness on the need to improve food security, such as the G8 New Alliance on Food Security and Nutrition, and the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture. However, achieving food security still remains a major problem.

If developing countries are to make considerable progress, they must prioritise food and health security, because their stability and development depends on a reliable manpower with access to quality food and healthcare. Therefore, intensity in infrastructure and technological development must be driven with the intent of enhancing food and health security.

Food security has four interconnected aspects: food availability, access to food, adequacy or stability and utilisation. In many instances, the root cause of food security in developing countries is lack of access to food due to high poverty levels. Population increase stresses the already scarce resources available, which includes food, to an extent that many don’t get enough of, while others lack even the little to sustain them. It also alters the demand-consumption patterns in countries that have seen mass population increase.

Climate change has also extensively hurt food production levels worldwide. Due to harsh conditions, there are a lot of crop failure cases that result to poor harvests and consequently, low food stocks. There have also been cases of unexpected flooding, famine, drought and change in weather patterns, which reduce food production.

Nations, international organisations, public and private stakeholders must research towards harnessing ecosystem-based approaches and make it an international priority. This calls for more national budgetary allocations to agricultural research programmes. Underdeveloped agricultural sectors and structures, especially in developing countries and more so in Africa, are also a major concern. They lead to over reliance on primary agriculture, poor land policies, lack or minimal use of farm inputs, significant crop failure and lack of value addition.

Food policies

Countries such as Malawi have benefited from good policies. Their Farm Input Subsidy Programme, introduced over a decade ago, ensured increased food production and food security, leading to economic empowerment.

Statistics by Future Agricultures showed that among the households that received subsidised fertilisers in the programme, about 22 per cent more than non-recipients reported adequate food production, with the co-efficient being statistically significant at the five per cent level. Increased fertiliser use, further led to the frequency of reported adequate food production.

Barriers to market access, either due to lack of infrastructure or poverty, are also a major challenge. This is largely influenced by limited resource base, lack of information and inadequate support from support institutions, such as the Consumer Federation of Kenya. Prevalence of HIV Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases have two effects. One, those who should be involved in economic activities, such as food production, are incapacitated. Secondly, a lot of resources are used to take care of them.

Handicapping policies, exclusivity, and uneven development, due to mainly political reasons at the expense of others, have caused misery to millions. Marginalisation of the former Northeastern region in Kenya which to date faces food and health security problems, is a good example. Water, a key item for human survival, is also a challenge in the developing world. Lack of access to clean water causes a number of diseases, such as typhoid and cholera in developing countries.

Rising oil prices in the past have increased the cost of production and distribution of food and food produce. More than often, this cost is passed on to the consumer, which has led to an increase in food prices, limiting their affordability, considering the average low income of those living in Africa. It would help if governments invested in cheaper forms of energy to bring down the cost of production.

Impact of conflicts

A proportion of malnutrition ranges at 33-35 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa and its prevalence within the continent is lowest in North Africa at four per cent and highest in Central Africa at 40 per cent. This shows that in places where conflicts and civil strife are involved, food insecurity is very high. The most common way which armed conflicts worsen food insecurity, is through the deliberate use of food as a weapon, such as in Burundi, Central Africa Republic, Libya, Somalia and South Sudan. The environment is also not conducive for agricultural activities, as there are cases where plantations are set on fire, farmers displaced and the impact of the war lingers thereafter.

While Africa makes attempts to increase food security, ending conflicts should be a priority. Other tangible initiatives should be actualised, such as Grow Africa partnership, a collaboration with G8 leaders aimed at accelerating sustainable investment in African agriculture. The need to prevent and reduce the likelihood of outbreaks, and work towards effective response requires international multi-sectoral, coordination and communication.

Agriculture is the basis for food security, social and economic development, employment, maintenance of the countryside, and conservation of land and natural resources, and thus helps sustain life and land. This enhances food production in an environmentally sound way to contribute to sustainable natural resource management.

Food security, therefore, can be improved by embracing issues such as: comparative advantage, enabling open markets, supporting small-holder farmers, enabling developing countries to realise their food production potential, reforming bio-fuels mandates, leveraging technology (mechanisation of agriculture), improving nutrition, fostering cooperation between public and private sectors and encouraging agricultural investment.

Improving food security consequently improves health standards and translates into wholesome living. Sufficient food can be produced to meet the needs of an increasingly prosperous world through the resilience and adaptation of farmers; the use of technology to improve yields sustainably; and the effectiveness of market-based approaches.

This of course needs a lot of investment in research and training by African governments.