Washington — The World Bank is urging African countries to strengthen regional food trade, suggesting that food security could be greatly enhanced simply by allowing farmers to trade more easily across the continent.
Currently, despite massive food insecurity, just five percent of Africa's imported cereals come from other African countries. Depending instead on far-flung imports from countries in Europe or Southeast Asia, or on emergency food provisions from international donors, results in both increased prices and trade imbalances, impacting particularly on the poorest.
With international prices for staple foods again at near-record highs following a drought in the United States this summer and amidst continued international demand for biofuels, many African countries have been forced to step up the levels of imported foods.
Yet concretising and harmonising food trade regulations across African blocs, the Washington-based World Bank suggests, could boost smallholder incomes and lead farmers both to increase the cultivation of available arable land and significantly boost yields.
"Africa has the ability to grow and deliver good-quality food to put on the dinner tables of the continent's families," Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice-president for Africa, said on Wednesday. "However, this potential is not being realised because farmers face more trade barriers in getting their food to market than anywhere else in the world."
In the foreword to a new report, Diop notes that just a tenth of arable land in broad swathes of Africa is currently under cultivation. Increasing that figure, he suggests, could do much not only to deal with rising and critical need within the continent but even allow for sales to the rest of the world, as well.
Yet structural issues remain significant impediments to realising that goal. While the bank particularly highlights the opportunity in easing the sale of agricultural products across borders, related problems include sharing agricultural knowledge between countries on the continent as well as accessing potentially helpful technologies.
"Farmers in Africa face more barriers in accessing the inputs they need and in getting their food to consumers in African cities than do suppliers from the rest of the world," Diop writes. "If African farmers were to achieve the yields that farmers are attaining in other developing countries, then output of staples would easily double or even triple."
Noting that the "nearest sources of demand" are often across national borders, he places the blame for the sluggish markets on "fragmented" regional food markets and outdated and unpredictable regulations and national trade policies.
"The concept of food security has too often been twisted by narrow nationalistic visions and frequently hijacked by specific interests that benefit from the current situation," Diop notes. "It is now an opportune time to breakout and pursue regionally integrated food markets that will deliver food security more efficiently and at the same time allow farmers to obtain more of the returns from their labours."
Remember the basics
"This is so obvious: there needs to be more regional food trade on the African continent - if Malawi has a terrible drought, South Africa can provide food rather than depending on aid or importing food that's not part of local diets or cultural values," Danielle Nierenberg, director of Nourishing the Planet, here in Washington, told IPS.
"Doing so offers an important form of insurance, if farmers have too much yield and nowhere to send it. In this way, they can depend on each other and not on the U.S. or Western Europe."
At the same time, Nierenberg warns against any approach that depends too greatly on markets and on modern inputs such as hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers, though she is quick to note that each of these plays critical roles in prudent, limited use.
"Smallholders are never going to be part of the market, so more broadly we need to focus on ensuring that small farmers are able to feed themselves and have a little bit left over to sell," she says.
That means there's no silver bullet, Nierenberg notes, emphasising the need for a variety of systems that collectively create resilience and protect farmers from shocks.
"I will note, though, I haven't seen, from the World Bank or any other big funders, any significant new focus on agro-ecological solutions, even though all of the data is available," she says. "We're still focusing on hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers. We need to recognise, for instance, that as fossil fuel prices rise, fertilisers are going to become impossible for small-scale farmers."
Far more basic infrastructure, Nierenberg suggests, would make a significant difference, particularly to deal with the problem of food wastage - cooling stations, collection centres and, more generally, modern storage facilities.
"Even if farmers are using hybrid seeds and producing more and more crops, if these get mouldy or eaten by insects before they can be sold or traded, all that work and all those inputs are for naught."
To the AU
The new World Bank report comes as the African Union starts a summit on agriculture and trade in Ethiopia.
The bank is calling on the African Union, backed by the international community, to take a significant role in fostering regional stakeholder conversations on how to increase regional food trade, as well as "knowledge platforms" that can work to spread past lessons and knowhow on agricultural trade reform.
World Bank analysts point out that African governments have made repeated commitments to opening regional food trade, but note that the record on implementation is poor, continuing to put in place a hodgepodge of restrictions.
"A program of regional trade reform can only be credible if governments commit to it," the bank states.
"An indication of this ... is the extent to which governments work to build a domestic constituency for reform - explaining the need for, and impacts of policy change, and generating a political consensus for integrated regional agricultural markets. Most African countries have failed in these efforts."