Africa must rise to the agricultural transformation challenge

Transformation is “slow magic” which requires sustained nurturing, writes Isabelle Tsakok.
Dr. Isabelle Tsakok, Senior Fellow at the Policy Center for the New South | Source: Policy Center for the New South

By Isabelle Tsakok

Dr. Isabelle Tsakok is a Senior Fellow at the Policy Center for the New South

13 Oct 2020

With COVID-19 raging, both the food secure and insecure are being hit hard. Pandemics are however not new; the Black Death killed around a third of the world’s population and more recently, the 1918-19 Spanish Flu pandemic ravaged societies, infecting 500 million people, and killing an estimated 50 million globally.

The havoc unleashed by COVID-19 is in no small measure due to the fact that we were not prepared. Except for a minority of governments that responded swiftly and decisively, most have struggled to cope. If there is anything positive to be taken from COVID-19, it is that it’s forcing us to rethink the foundations of what we cherish most.

Food security is one crucial area, especially as millions, even in rich countries, have had to queue for food donations for the first time in their lives. Even though the European Union through the Common Agricultural Policy has transformed its agri-food system, from scarcity in the 1950s to surplus by the 1970s and has achieved food security for the majority of its population, it was vulnerable to the pandemic.

Imagine how dire the situation is in many low and middle-income countries, where much of smallholder agriculture is still mired in low productivity and extreme poverty. Many developing countries, still saddled with non-performing agrifood systems and weak public health infrastructures, are now faced with triple crises – climate, health and economic – all of which are inter-connected.

“African leaders can use the vast continental market made possible by the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) to power their smallholder agri-food systems”

The pandemic has shown clearly that the countries that fared best are those where leadership recognised the magnitude of the public health threat and responded swiftly and decisively to detect, isolate, contact trace, treat and contain the virus. This is no accident.

They learned from their past experiences with contagious diseases, used science and technology, and enjoyed public trust throughout. It is precisely these qualities of national leadership and governance that are necessary for countries to achieve food security.

Likewise, leaders who recognised that the food security challenge required transforming not only their agricultural and rural economies, but their entire economies did best. They put in place investment, incentives and institutions that made use of science and technology, and improved access to expanding markets to fuel their decades-long transformation.

They monitored the impacts of their interventions and adjusted their policies along the way. There is a vast literature on successful agricultural transformation to draw upon. For Africa, there is also a great opportunity.

African leaders can use the vast continental market made possible by the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) to power their smallholder agrifood systems in the rebuilding of Africa’s economies shattered by COVID-19.

For such transformation to materialise, all Africa must rise to this opportunity by maintaining conducive policies for decades to come; for transformation is “slow magic” which requires sustained nurturing.

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