Africa's food systems require a critical shift towards resilience


Eshilunyire Primary School pupils during a 4K-club practical lesson well known as Sack Mount farming (Vertical farming) in promoting food security and improving their agricultural skills. [Jackline Inyanji, Standard]

As former UN and current African Union Food Systems envoys, we have firsthand experience of the complex challenges confronting Africa's food systems. Despite the continent's abundant natural resources, it continues to struggle with food insecurity and malnutrition. The combined impacts of climatic shocks, Covid-19, and civil unrest are further exacerbating these vulnerabilities, emphasising the urgent need for reforms to ensure food security across Africa.

The recent El Niño phenomenon experienced in Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe is expected to significantly reduce maize yields, with a projected decline of 5 per cent from 2.3 MT/Ha in marketing year 2023/24, marking a five-year low in productivity for Zambia. These examples highlight the fragility of Africa's food systems and the challenges they present.

While southern Africa faces a looming food crisis, a brighter picture emerges in Eastern Africa. Thanks to improved rainfall and production, the region boasts a projected net surplus of 1.7 million MT of maize for the 2023/24. Tanzania leads the pack with an exportable surplus expected to be 36 per cent above average (1.1 million MT), while Uganda and Ethiopia are on track for typical levels (450,000 MT and 400,000 MT respectively).

This surplus could be strategically traded within Southern Africa during deficit seasons. Africa, with its vast arable land and varied climates, has the potential to not only be self-sufficient but also become a major contributor to global food security. However, unlocking this potential hinges on tackling structural issues and investing in sustainable agricultural practices

Africa's food systems require a critical shift towards resilience. Extreme weather like droughts, floods, and desertification pose real threats, causing crop failures and devastating livelihoods. To counter these risks, systemic interventions are crucial. Drought-resistant crops, improved water management, soil conservation techniques, and sustainable land use are all urgent priorities. Furthermore, rain-fed agriculture leaves smallholder farmers exposed. Investing in scalable solutions like small-scale irrigation and promoting water-efficient practices can mitigate these risks and ensure sustainable yields for these vital producers.

Beyond climate shocks, inefficiencies plague Africa's food chain. Staggering post-harvest losses exceeding 35 per cent stem from inadequate storage and transportation. Addressing these can boost farm earnings by over 20 per cent in a single season. However, this requires targeted policies and investments in cold storage, transport infrastructure, and market linkages.

By ensuring food reaches markets in good quality, these interventions incentivise private sector investment, extending shelf life and guaranteeing markets for farmers' yields. This approach, proven to encourage smart technologies and crop diversification, is the key to attracting youth participation in value addition. Empowering smallholder farmers to become thriving businesses remains a viable path to rural economic growth, improved livelihoods, and social inclusion.

Africa urgently needs transformative policies and investments to create resilient, inclusive food systems. National, regional, and international collaboration is crucial, with governments, civil society, and the private sector working in unison. This aligns with the CAADP post-Malabo process, which envisions food system transformations beyond 2025.

As former UN Food Systems Envoys and current Africa Food Systems Champions, we believe proven innovations hold the key.

Dr Mayaki, is the current Africa Union’s Special Envoy on Food Systems. Dr Kalibata is the former UN Food Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Food Systems and the President of AGRA and former Winner Yara Prize and now Africa Food Prize