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Africa’s last famine

By Thierry Tanoh

Continent needs better infrastructure in order to boost food production

Last year, the international community recognised one of the worst humanitarian tragedies of recent times unfolding in the Horn of Africa, and moved in to ameliorate the widespread famine there. Now, poor rains, crop shortages, and continuing conflict could cause millions to be plunged back into life-threatening levels of hunger and malnutrition.

Emergency assistance is crucial in this fragile time; but it is not enough. Only if the agricultural sector’s fundamental inadequacies are addressed can the region truly escape famine’s blight.

Africa is endowed with 60% of the world’s unused arable land and millions of dedicated farmers. They simply need the tools, infrastructure, and competence to unlock the continent’s tremendous agricultural potential. There is no reason – and no excuse – to leave the survival of millions to unpredictable weather conditions. Rather, countries must take control by drastically improving efficiency and productivity.

To be sure, progress has been made. Some African governments have reduced regulatory barriers to private-sector investment in agriculture. And some are implementing risk-management and hedging tools to shield farmers from drought and flood, and poor consumers from the food-price volatility that such disasters cause. For example, the Global Index Insurance Facility insures Kenyan farmers against drought or excessive rainfall.

Such initiatives foster the flow of resources into agriculture – both for the agribusinesses needed to feed Africa’s growing cities, and for smallholders who need better seeds, fertilizer, and market roads. Although more developed regions have been taking such measures, they are not yet standard practice in Africa.

The continent’s agricultural sector is further hindered by low skills, a dearth of innovation, weak infrastructure, little funding, and lack of access to land, land titles, and lender security. But, given the right tools, all of these problems are solvable.

For example, in order to finance reform, local banks need incentives to expand credit. That could mean access to specialised credit bureaus and rating agencies, risk-sharing facilities targeting smallholders, and advisory services to provide capacity-building and education.

These banks also need direct support. For example, the International Finance Corporation is investing $25 million in Zambia National Commercial Bank to increase access to finance for small-scale entrepreneurs and rural agribusiness companies, which account for a significant share of Zambia’s economic output.

Moreover, innovative financing techniques – such as structured trade finance, warehouse receipt finance, and supplier finance – are already in place or being developed. Under the Global Warehouse Receipt Program, for example, farmers may use produce stored in depositories as collateral for loans.

Smallholder farm-mechanisation models are also needed to improve efficiency and increase yields. Farmers could be grouped together to pool their production and negotiate a favorable offtake agreement to monetise future sales, then use the receipts to lease equipment, such as tractors.

Water is another major constraint on food production in some regions. Most affected countries are working to increase supply by developing new sources of ground and surface water, using wastewater from nearby urban areas, harvesting rainwater, or reusing agricultural drainage. Meanwhile, some countries are focusing on reducing demand, through improved management and innovative agricultural techniques, such as precision and drip irrigation.

Africa also needs better infrastructure in order to boost food output. Limited access to electricity means that cold storage is lacking; poorly maintained roads slow down old vehicles; and inefficient ports often leave food to rot on the docks. Production is meaningless if fresh products do not make it to market in good condition and at a reasonable cost.

Finally, Africa’s transformation into an agricultural powerhouse must be based on inclusiveness and environmental sustainability. Investments should ensure an equitable division of benefits between producers and consumers, and include smallholder participation and linkages to markets for inputs and outputs. And investors must account for the interests of host countries, local communities, and the environment – an approach that is both good and good business.

Long-term food security in Africa is possible. In fact, it is only the first step on the road to a booming agricultural export sector for Africa. By acting now, African and international leaders can ensure not only the continent’s food security, but also a prosperous, inclusive economy.

Thierry Tanoh is Vice President for Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Europe at the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group.

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