IDEAS FIRST, AFRICA! COVID-19: Why Africa must review its agricultural and food system

Today’s edition of “Ideas First, Africa! reproduces in English language an interview granted by Mr. MatthieuBrun, a research associate at “Africans in the World “ laboratory and also in charge of studies at Club Demeter, a think tank dedicated to world food issues. The interview publicized by RFI brought to the fore, policy relevant analysis on the subject indicated in the caption above.The critical viewpoints shared may prove useful to national policy making.


Behind the health and economic crisiscaused by Covid-19 looms a food crisis for Africa. The economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt quite profoundly on the ground. If at the outset the greatest worries concerned the hydrocarbon sector, today they are mainly about the   food and agricultural sector.  At the beginning of the month [of April], the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN, the World Health Organisation and the World Trade Organisationgave the alarm that the risk offood shortage was real. Indeed according to Qu Dongyu, TedrosAdhanom Ghebreyesus et Roberto Azevedo, directors respectively of the three institutions, “millions of people in the world depend on international trade for their food security and means of existence”. This is the case in Africa. Its agricultural system, turned upside down by colonization and then by globalization, has reached its limits. The continent depends mainlyon exports to feed its population and now with a brake put on exchanges occasioned by the fight against COVID-19, food crisis threatens several countries on the continent. That said, the situation serious as it is, forces usto interrogate ourselves on the ways and means of changing the deal. Can this economic crisis initiate the development of a new agricultural system?

Figure 1Now more than ever before, the question of food security is put to the African continent.©  AFP

Question(Q):According to the World Bank, the continent would be expected to enter into recession for  the first time in twenty five years as a result of  the novel coronavirus pandemic. What does this crisis teach us about the economic andmore specifically agricultural system of the continent?

MatthieuBrun (MB): There are several lessons to be drawn from it. First this crisis underscores the great vulnerability of the continent not only on health grounds, but also in the field of politics. Situations differ according to countries but generally the impression is that there is a gap between authorities and populations (of which a majority) live on the informal sector and have no social security net. Above all, the crisis linked to COVID-19 has exposed the risks of dependency of Africa on external sources. The vulnerabilities are huge given that maize production hardly covers 10% of Africa’s needs.Africa is not able to produce what it consumes and it exports what it is not able to process (cocoa for example).Therefore the marked slackening inthe import-export performance is a challenge to the continent’s food situation. Certain regions, moreover seriously lack supply.In West Africa, rice reserves will only last two or three months. This situation must lead Africa to review its agricultural and food model which has reached its limits. Africa cannot bypass deep thinking on this issue.

(Q): From now to 2050, Africa’s population will have doubledmoving from 1.2 billion inhabitants to nearly 2.5 billion.  Can this demographic growthlead the authorities to bring about a profound transformation in the sector?

MB: In the years to come there will indeed be an increasing number of mouths to feed. The problem is that production willlag behind.The strong economic growth that certain states are experiencing is seldom sustained notably in regard to the issue of employment. On this point, the agricultural sector will become essential. With demographic growth, Africa will need not only more farmers, but also more agricultural workers employed in logistics or processing.

The benefits offered by the sector to jobs are enormous. In countries where agriculture constitutes an important part of the economy e.g. Niger where the sector accounts for as much as 70% of the GDP, the potential is very high.

Q: What are the other thought pathways that could be considered in your opinion?

MB:In order to go along with this transition it will also be important to reform land ownership, and create a stable environment in this field.  Few investments have been made there these last years while African farms aresteadily shrinking and now measure on average 2 hectares in size.  For the purpose of comparison, the size of a farm in Franceaverages 63 hectares. Farm sizes in Africa would have to be increased without necessarily transforming them into industrial concerns because techniques of production must be adapted to the regional context. Production in a tropical climate is not realized in the same way as in an equatorial climate. It will be necessary to ensure that traditional systems are not put aside. The fact is that a general strategy cannot be applied to all territories.  There is the need for a diversity of structures and agricultural systems to meet all the demands.

Q:Can new technologies play a role in the creation of a new African agricultural model?

MB:It is an interesting sector that is already being thoroughly tested on the ground. East African farmers for example use mobile money applications… a practice that has gained currency in the region. They also make use of digitalization to refer to weather forecasts or the prices of commodities. Considerable progress has already been made in this domain. But I think a lot of innovation still remains to be realized without necessarily resorting to new technologies. Before using drones, it would be necessary to secure the financial situation of farmers and improve their working conditions. Renovating a commercial road, for example can be more beneficial to them.

The presenter of Ideas First, Africa! is a member of staff of the Ghana Parliamentary Service

By Pius Acolatse

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