A systemic approach to Africa’s most important challenges

Opening discussions around the future of Africa’s food systems, Lionel Zinzou – the former Prime Minister of Benin and Founder and Managing Partner of Southbridge – was in no doubt about the significance of the issues involved.

“Food production is more important in Africa than elsewhere,” he said. “Across the continent, the sector accounts for around 25 percent of GDP and 50 percent of the workforce. But it only accounts for around 2 percent of commercial credit.”

He therefore believes agriculture needs to be at the heart of government thinking. “You cannot have a viable, progressive food system if you don’t have a truly systemic policy around agriculture,” he continued. And he was in doubt about the most important factor for future success: “Getting a good income for farmers has to be the number one priority for policy, as it is the number one parameter for inclusive growth.”

Fellow panellist the Hon. Musa Humma, Director of Agriculture at The Gambia’s Department of Agriculture highlighted how much progress is needed to place farmers at the heart of the agricultural value chain.

“In the Gambia, the situation is that farmers sell at the farm gate, they are mostly not involved in food processing,” he said. “This means they are mostly involved with the raw materials – others gain the higher levels of benefit. Farmers need to move to a higher level of the food chain if they are going to progress beyond subsistence farming.”

However, some panellists believe that a shift is underway that will result in a new approach. Barbara Stinson, President of the World Food Prize Foundation, said: “I believe that the call for transformation has never been stronger.

“The groundswell has been reached – and I believe we may look back at this time, even with the COVID-19 pandemic, and see that we are starting on a new trajectory to overcome the challenges involved in producing safe, affordable, nutritious food for all, sustainably and all year round.”

Ms. Ruramiso Mashumba, Director of Mnandi Africa and a practicing farmer, feels there are key issues that need to be addressed to make agriculture a more attractive career option for young people.

“Children want to be lawyers, pilots, engineers,” she said. “They see agriculture as too hard and too difficult, not digitalized and commercialized enough. There is also a sense that the technology out there currently is not sufficiently attractive, it’s not delivering returns on farming. Farmers must have access to simple things – about all to connectivity.”

Dr. Roy Steiner, Senior Vice President at the Rockefeller Foundation, identified two key principles and values that need to underpin the food system of the future.

“First, the protagonists must be African – Africans must make their own choices about the technology, the economics and the culture of their agricultural sector,” he said. “And there must be a unity of vision. A system is a very hard thing to shift. To survive, we’re going to have to stop conflicting with one another and learn how to work really well together as members of the same family.”

The power of the market will also be fundamental to a progressive future. This was the view of Prof. Njuguna Ndung’u, Executive Director, AERC, who said: “If we don’t develop markets, there will be no investment in agriculture. So competitive, commercial agriculture will depend on the development of a market with proper incentives and a legal framework.”

Petra Hans, Head of Agricultural Livelihoods at the IKEA Foundation, believes a new way of defining efficiency is required to build a properly sustainable environment for African farming. “We can no longer define it just by the returns made at the expense of ecosystems and the people who produce the food. The food system of the future must produce fair livelihoods, healthy diets and sustainability. And as long as we consume natural resources from the soil, we owe it to the soil to put something back.”