Despite having vast amounts of arable land, nutritious indigenous crops and skilled agricultural workers, Africa has immense potential for feeding itself, yet the continent still imports most of its grain.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent blockade plus the ripple effects of Western sanctions against Moscow have raised international food and fuel prices, leaving millions of Africans facing an "unprecedented food emergency" this year, according to the World Food Programme. Kenya, Somalia, and large parts of Ethiopia are at risk of acute food insecurity, the UN's Food & Agriculture Organization said this week. In Sahel and West Africa, more than 40 million people could go hungry in 2022, according to the FAO, up from 10.8 million people in 2019.
Even before the Russian invasion, the pandemic and a long period of recurring drought had already hit African economies and farming hard. The war in Ukraine worsened the situation since the continent imported about a third of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. With food prices skyrocketing in global markets, even those countries not reliant on imports from Russia and Ukraine are suffering.
Over the past decade, Africa's food import bill has nearly tripled. But why is it still so dependent on imported grain?
Major areas of Africa's farmland are used to grow cash crops such as coffee, cocoa, and cottonseed oil for export, while the staple crops of the African diet, wheat, and rice, mainly come from outside of the continent, although much of this imported food could be produced locally.
Self-sufficiency for African countries could also be boosted by replacing foreign cereal with regional crops such as fonio, teff, sorghum, amaranthus, and millet, creating much-needed jobs for the youth and markets for their farmers, as well as being the basis for a healthy diet. Indigenous crops have been neglected for decades, largely due to states and international companies pushing for the mass production of maize and wheat and promoting them as staple foods.
"Indigenous crops could offer much healthier alternatives to the cereals currently in use," Pauline Chivenge, a researcher at the African Plant Nutrition Institute in Morocco, explained. "They have benefits that go beyond sustaining food security. They are more nutritious, so in addition to the necessary calories, they contain higher amounts of protein and vitamins."
Chivenge said, "Research and development and mechanization have focused on maize, rice, and wheat, and producing them in large, mono-crop fields at the expense of the region’s biodiversity."
Chivenge also added, "The fact is that grains like maize and wheat are not really suitable for growing in most regions of Africa, where water is in short supply," she added. "They are very much dependent on regular rainfall, which is becoming a real challenge in the wake of climate change."
Wolfgang Bokelmann, a food and agriculture economist at Humboldt University in Berlin, agreed that local crops are underutilized.
Between 2015 to 2018 he oversaw a study on the local production and consumption of a group of indigenous vegetables in Kenya. "The vegetables we studied had previously fallen out of fashion and used to be known as the poor man's food, due to dominance of the foreign produce that colonialization brought to Kenya."
In addition to their health benefits and ecological advantages, indigenous crops can empower women and provide for urban populations Bokelmann said
"There are many types of crops that can grow in home gardens in cities' margins within a short period of time." With the continuous trend of migration from villages to cities in Africa, constellations of small plots of indigenous crop farms around the cities can count as vital food sources for the ever-expanding population of slums and marginal communities, he noted.
"Most of these nations are faced with a dilemma," Bokelmann said. "They are forced to choose between the mass production of crops for exporting, which brings them more price value, or feeding the majority of their population by supporting small-scale farming of indigenous crops."
The idea of having a global market and integrated supply chain used to be popular decades ago, with every country exporting what they best produce themselves while importing what it needs from other countries.
"But from the look of the post-pandemic world, it seems that food sovereignty, the ability of each country and community to grow its own food, is much more important," he said.
And no with the war in Ukraine threatening global food supplies, production and distribution will need to adapt.