A World Bank report says that Africa's farmers can potentially grow enough food to feed the continent and avert future food crises if countries remove cross-border restrictions on the food trade within the region.
According to the Bank, the continent would also generate an extra $20 billion in yearly earnings if African leaders can agree to dismantle trade barriers that blunt more regional dynamism. The report was released on the eve of an African Union (AU) ministerial summit in Addis Ababa on agriculture and trade.
With as many as 19 million people living with the threat of hunger and malnutrition in West Africa's Sahel region, the Bank report urges African leaders to improve trade so that food can move more freely between countries and from fertile areas to those where communities are suffering food shortages.
The World Bank expects demand for food in Africa to double by the year 2020 as people increasingly leave the countryside and move to the continent's cities.
According to the new report-Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing barriers to regional trade in food staples, rapid urbanization will challenge the ability of farmers to ship their cereals and other foods to consumers when the nearest trade market is just across a national border.
Roads and transport costs blunt progress
Transport cartels are still common across Africa, and the incentives to invest in modern trucks and logistics are weak. The World Bank report suggests that countries in West Africa in particular could halve their transport costs within 10 years if they adopted policy reforms that spurred more competition within the region.
Unpredictable trade policies a liability
Other obstacles to greater African trade in food staples include export and import bans, variable import tariffs and quotas, restrictive rules of origin, and price controls.
Often devised with little public scrutiny, these policies are then poorly communicated to traders and officials. This process in turn promotes confusion at border crossings, limits greater regional trade, creates uncertain market conditions, and contributes to food price volatility.
Establishing a competitive market A competitive food market will help poor people most, the report notes. For example, poor people in the slums of Nairobi pay more for their maize, rice, and other staple food than wealthy people pay for the same products in local supermarkets.
The report underlines the importance of food distribution networks which in many countries fail to benefit poor farmers and poor consumers.
"The challenge is how to create a competitive environment in which governments embrace credible and stable policies that encourage private investors and businesses to boost food production across the region, so that farmers get the capital, the seeds, and the machinery they need to become more efficient, said Paul Brenton, WB's Lead Economist.