Friday, October 05, 2012

The Incomplete Picture

Agricultural Season for two sub-climate zones in West Africa


FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization, a branch of the United Nations) came out recently with a report called “Why Has Africa Become a Net Food Importer?” (Accessible at: This report looks at how Africa went from being once a net food exporter (before 1970) to a net food importer (starting in the 1970s). This has great consequence on food security for the continent and thus an investigation into the reasons for this shift is important to both policymakers and the general population of Africa as a whole.

The report indicates that population growth, low to stagnating agricultural productivity, policy distortions, weak institutions, and poor infrastructure as the main causes for the shift from food exporter to food importer. It also explains that countries that are faring better economically (Nigeria, Gabon and Angola for example) are capable of importing foods as they have revenue from other primary resources (i.e. minerals and petrol) to pay for food imports. Most African countries, however, despite what primary resources they possess are not faring as well (Mali, Niger and Zambia to name a few). As a consequence these countries have lived with chronic food insecurity for decades.

The picture is incomplete. No mention is made of the role external actors had and have in contributing to making Africa a net food importer and the tragic consequence of generating greater food insecurity among the poorest of African nations. First off London, Paris and Lisbon have kept strong trade relations with their former colonies, perpetuating the retardation of trade between neighboring African countries. Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have only exacerbated this in pursing their self-interests in exploiting African natural resources. All this competition between stronger economies to capture Africa’s natural resources makes intra-trade in Africa abysmal. Since intra-trade is poor, the infrastructure and markets are not there for food producers. Milk and cheese from Mauritanian herds is not found in Guinea-Bissau and rice and fruits from Guinea-Bissauan mangroves and orchards are not found in Mauritania.  

Second, international lending institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund impose policies that retard (if not block altogether) the efforts African governments make in promoting local food production. Tariffs on food imports are contradictory to the lending institutes’ aim at liberalizing African economies and subsidies to local African producers are viewed as wasteful and often scrapped in order for African nations to receive loans.     

Third, since there are no subsidies to promote local food production and tariffs are not imposed on imports, North America and Western Europe dumps their cheap, subsidized food products on African markets (showing the hypocrisy of world economy … free markets in Africa but protectionism for North American and European farmers). Food products such as meat and milk products, cooking oils and cereals flood into African markets and as a consequence retard local food production. NGOs and their media sources do a decent job in reporting on this (see: ), but overall the reporting of external forces contributing to Africa’s food insecurity are downplayed for local, national and regional factors.

The FAO report suggests two directions that Africa could pursue to alleviate food insecurity and develop a better standard of living. One is to reduce the trade deficit regarding food by finding ways to reduce agricultural imports and boost local agricultural production and exports. For most countries in Africa, the author of this blog sides with this policy. How to do this in an economic environment where external forces both explicitly and subtlety promote their own imports to Africa is difficult. The other is to ignore the agricultural trade imbalance and find ways to increase African exports of non-food or non-agricultural sectors (like services, tourism, oil and mining, etc.). This external forces promoted for years and what has created greater vulnerability to food insecurity for the poorer nations of Africa.

In fairness, the second option (which this author opposes in general) might be the only path to take for some African countries, particularly when dramatic changes in climate are affecting food production. The first option, however, should not be seen as an unrealistic goal. It is possible and should be promoted in as many communities, countries and regions as possible. Self-reliance, not greater vulnerability and dependability on the global economy, is a direction Africa needs to take for greater food security.

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