As the human suffering brought on by the Ukraine conflict continues, the rest of the world is bracing for major disruptions in the global food supply chain as a result. Because Ukraine and Russia are significant producers of wheat, and Russia of fertilizer and oil, it’s clear that the cost of the world’s heavy dependence on limited sources for food commodities is becoming riskier.
To mitigate that exposure, we must work to make the world’s poorest people less vulnerable to these major shocks by strengthening local food systems. Doing so in Africa will have a significant upside — developing the last agricultural frontier to help feed itself and the world.
To ensure there is enough affordable and nutritious food for everyone, regardless of any short-term crisis, Africa needs to be able to sustain itself.
Africa as a whole is a net importer of food and has some of the highest rates of food insecurity and malnutrition in the world. But it also has the world’s largest remaining tracts of arable land available for cultivation and a growing agricultural and food ecosystem. Now is the time to invest in local and regional food systems to address African needs and also bring Africa “online” as a net food exporter.
With a global population reaching 9.9 billion by 2050, with at least 25% of that in Africa alone, we have no other choice. Because of the continent’s size and diversity, it is the best hope to help the world mitigate future food shocks and the human suffering that results from it.
With the Russia-Ukraine war beginning its third month, it is already having a significant impact on food prices here in Zambia. My company Java Foods, a Zambian food processor that makes affordable fortified foods including instant noodles and cereals that thousands of people rely on, has already been affected.
Though Zambia is self-sustaining in maize, wheat, and soya bean, Java Foods’ production is still dependent on imports of other key raw materials such as cooking oil, fortificants, and packaging.
We have already witnessed an increase in pricing of these imports in part due to supply chain disruptions but also weakening of the local currency. Conflict-related fuel price hikes are costing us more to distribute our products and we are having to raise our prices simply to survive. My customers, many of whom shop for food in informal markets and can only afford to buy enough food for a few days, are really struggling to afford this.
This problem is not unique to the current crisis. Our global food system is constantly under pressure and that will only increase as resources diminish and climate change consequences grow. To ensure there is enough affordable and nutritious food for everyone, regardless of any short-term crisis, Africa needs to be able to sustain itself and become a bigger part of the global food system. That can happen, but it will take time.
Significant gains have already been made. Crop yields are up and investment is growing. In the past month alone, two African agricultural tech startups announced nearly $100 million in investment financing.
Biotechnology holds promise for climate-adapted crop varieties. Trading began in January in the African Continental Free Trade Area, an agreement signed by 44 nations that would require members to remove tariffs from 90% of goods, allowing free access to commodities, goods, and services. There is also a new focus on strengthening the food processing sector, a key component for increasing the value of raw materials and creating jobs.
In the near term, Java Foods is looking at cost optimization initiatives to keep our prices affordable to consumers here in Zambia as well as in the region. To do that, we’ve been working with Partners in Food Solutions, a consortium of global food businesses that are providing pro bono technical and business consulting to hundreds of African-owned food companies in an effort to strengthen their businesses.
We’ve worked together for five years on various projects that improve our production capacity and the products we sell, and I have recently joined the board of Partners in Food Solutions. Before this crisis began, we had been working with the consortium to explore reformulating our products to use more locally produced alternatives to the imported ingredients we buy. Because we started this process months ago, implementing it now can help us keep costs down for consumers and support even more Zambian farmers during this uncertain time.
Investing in all aspects of Africa’s agricultural capacity should be a top priority for governments, donors, private businesses, and investors. For most small processors such as Java Foods that produce a large portion of Africa’s finished food products, access to working capital during shocks such as this one is critical to keeping local food systems from seizing up.
Companies like mine have a role to play in developing Africa’s whole food supply chain. By purchasing locally, Java Foods maintains a stable market for local farmers, which aids in their growth and we provide nutritious and affordable food for Zambians. With the right investments, we can expand to meet regional demand from the continent’s rapidly growing population.
Unlocking the potential of Africa to feed itself and become the world’s next food basket has never been more critical. Aggressively investing in the development of its local and regional food systems now will benefit the whole world in years to come.