African paradox: vast arable land, but net food importer

Despite its vast agricultural potential, Africa as a continent has remained a net importer of agricultural products over the last few decades. Statistics reveal that African countries spend around $35 billion a year on food imports, yet the continent has a lot of uncultivated land.

Trade trends

Trade trends (Source: Science20.com)

For instance, imports account for 60% of the food consumed in Gabon, according to the 2013 WTO Trade Policy Review (TPR) of CEMAC. Yet arable land there is abundant: the Population density (people per sq. km) in that country was measured at 6.19 in 2011, according to the World Bank.

And subsequently, malnutrition, especially lack of essential minerals and vitamins, causes major challenges on the African continent: It is estimated that 12 Africans die every minute as a result of hunger and malnutrition. Africa has the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world while 65% of arable land in the world is in Africa. And 80% of stunted children in the world live just in 14 countries, including 8 African countries.

Little marketing

In fact, you will find for instance baby foods, cakes and other processed food commodities in African supermarkets imported from Europe and Asia, but you will barely find locally processed food commodities. And the unpleasant story goes on like that for decades.

figureReality is that these African countries are spending billions of dollars on imports far beyond their foreign exchange earnings. Analysts say the increase of food imports is a result of increasing of middle class on the continent. Then my question still is ‘if Africans are gaining more and more purchasing capacity, why don’t they use the resources in developing and diversifying their home-made products instead of looking at fortified products from abroad?’

Truth is that we have been growing traditional crops for centuries, but with no efforts to add value on them. For instance, sweet potato is one of the traditional crops that are widely grown in many African countries (and they have been consumed only spoiled or baked under hot ashes for centuries), but you will, in your neighborhood’s boutiques, come across with cakes or biscuits made from sweet potatoes imported from Asia. Probably this is because our traditional crop is little marketed while it has high potential to provide many solutions of the problems we are facing now.

Should we let things going on that way? No! Then think twice. After all, there is a possibility to change this deteriorating situation.

Before going on, let’s take an example from Rwanda. My country has been growing sweet potatoes for decades. When I grew up in Eastern part of Rwanda, the crop was being grown as an alternative crop to be eaten raw in case of starvation; otherwise it would never be a priority crop for daily consumption and generally considered as a poor man’s food, despite its rich nutrients.

But truth is that by using orange-fleshed sweet potato to replace wheat in the most wheat based products in Rwanda, we can save the country’s foreign exchange and benefit farmers

In fact, Rwanda imported over 50,000 tons of wheat in 2010. If we had replaced 30% of this wheat with flour processed from sweet potato locally grown, Rwanda could have saved more than 15,000 tons of imports – an equivalent of more than $9 million. That’s just one commodity, then image what happened with other commodities!

Watch a video from the International Potato Center (CIP) on how sweet potato has high potential:

Through this video, you can see how a single crop can be processed into several items that are not only nutrient-rich, but also that can increase income for farmers.

Then imagine what would happen if we can invest the billions we spend on imports in making productive our uncultivated lands and processing our cassava, banana, Irish potato, beans, maize, etc? Obviously gains would be huge. And we would not only be able to strengthen the whole value chains, but also to invest in other socio-economic needs.

Promising future

But there is hope that things can be changed so quickly. And I will once again give you an example from my country. For instance, Rwanda has for the first time been producing enough food to feed its citizens since 2009, with more than half of the nation’s 30 districts producing a surplus that in turn generates income. This is unlike where we were a few years ago; when we imported even crops like cassava, banana and beans which today, we produce in excess. And few other African countries have now their good stories. Obviously this trend predicts a promising future.

In Rwanda, this has been accomplished through different government-led initiatives such as land consolidation, connecting farmers to their neighbors, innovative cow-sharing schemes, linking farmers to food buyers, and localized cooperative farming programs. But this should not be the end of the journey, but keep strengthening the value chains. And I hope to see it happening soon.

To my fellow Africans, all I could tell you is to change our mindsets, work on increasing productivity by implementing conducing policies, market our locally grown crops; and then the change will happen soon.

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One comment on “African paradox: vast arable land, but net food importer

  1. I have read the stories and is impressed, we are planning a learning and sharing sessions between and among the IFAD grantees and Rwanda and Mozambique. I am looking for strategic projects and partners who can have this conversation from post harvesting and resilient perspective in Rwanda and share the infrastructural and Nrs management in Mozambique drop me an email

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