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Grace Njoroge

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Act now to build resilient food systems in Africa

Last week, Kenya hosted the 11th Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) which brought together over 8,000 participants from African governments, private sector and the development community, among other stakeholders. Discussions were centred on strategies to transform the continent’s food systems in the face of three critical challenges: COVID-19, climate change and conflict.

The paradox remains that Africa has 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, yet the continent is not able to feed itself and remains a net importer of food. The United Economic Commission for Africa recently put Africa’s annual food imports at $43 billion, and this is forecasted to increase to $110 billion by 2025.

Just recently, the Kenya Revenue Authority indicated that Kenya imported food worth Sh103.34 billion between January and June this year, which was a 13.5% increase over last year.

The summit identified policy as one of the key enablers of food systems transformation. Governments were called upon to develop inclusive policies that are pro-growth, sustainable, encourage innovation, and grounded on evidence. There is an urgent need for policy development that is both bottom-up and inclusive.

Governments were called upon to honour different commitments made in the past, including the Malabo Declaration of 2014 where targets were made to have at least 10% of public expenditures allocated to agriculture. In Kenya, for example, the government has only committed 3.2% of this year’s budget to agriculture.

Private sector was also challenged to step up investments in agriculture, and in particular financial institutions to increase lending to the sector. There is a recognition that the sector needs innovative approaches to meet its financing needs and financial institutions were called upon to rise up to the challenge.

 It was encouraging to hear from some private sector players that the COVID pandemic did not only throw them challenges, rather some of them were able to find opportunities to continue operating and even diversify their businesses.

Farmers are squarely at the centre of any discussion around food systems and transformation cannot happen without investing in smallholder farmers. Speakers passionately appealed to different stakeholders to support this group. These farmers need support around land tenure legislation, digital innovations, access to finance, information and markets among others.

The role of women and youth was also brought to the fore. Africa’s food systems need to be inclusive enough that they provide customized support to these groups. A young farmer said that youth have a challenge getting decent employment opportunities within the food systems space yet they do not have the resources needed to engage in primary production.

Gender is inextricably woven through all aspects of the food system, from the woman working at the farm, to the mother and wife who prepares the final meal in the kitchen. Different speakers reiterated the need to have adequate female representation across institutions, at policy discussions and as equal recipients of funding and other interventions.

The importance of climate adaptation was also discussed as climate change not only has adverse effects on the environment and food system production, but also exacerbates humanitarian crises and conflict. Passionate pleas were given for all to adopt and support climate smart agriculture while adapting and mitigating the effects of the changing climate. Perhaps a somewhat new addition to the Forum discussions was the recognition that there is a need to invest in the food systems leaders of today and the future.

There were interesting discussions around the importance of honing collaborative leadership skills to deliver on sector priorities and sharing of ideas on how to inspire new forms of leadership. Two young initiatives, the Centre for African Leaders in Agriculture and the African Food Fellowship shared their approaches on how they are catalysing professional movements of food systems leaders in the continent.

The Forum sought to build a single African voice ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit later this month. The UN summit identifies food systems as the driver that will enable recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and get the world back on track to achieving the SDGs.

The writer is an Access to Finance Expert and Fellow at the African Food Fellowship (