Get our best content directly in your inbox
Sign up

An insecure future: how can Africa strengthen its fragile food system?

young woman with glasses smiling
14 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
black woman wearing headscarf crouching by market stall with cassava, oranges

“Most agricultural challenges are closely linked to food security in Africa,” according to Ken Lohento, Digital Agricultural Specialist at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Office for Africa. It’s an unsurprising statement, given Africa’s fragile food system and that approximately 21% of its population – 282 million people – were said to be undernourished in 2020. Things haven’t improved since then, with 2022 named the “year of unprecedented hunger” by the World Food Programme, due to a combination of the ongoing aftereffects of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused an increase in food prices and further shortages. The WFP has described this period as a “critical crossroads” ­– a time where funding, support and innovation is vital to avoid a complete “hunger catastrophe”. 

Food insecurity has been a challenge Africa has faced for many years, not helped by the fact that the continent imports most of its food. Last year the UN reported approximately 85% of goods were imported into Africa between 2016-2018. This urgently needs to change, says Professor Ruth Oniang’o, former member of the Kenyan Parliament, Nutrition Professor at Jomo Kenyatta University Kenya, founder of NGO Rural Outreach Africa and long-time chair of the Sasakawa Africa Association. “At a recent meeting I went to, people were complaining about the Russia-Ukraine war and how it has impacted our imports, when really we should be talking of sending food to Ukraine,” she told Food Matters Live. “We are not at war as a continent, but we aren’t sending food, so there’s something we’re not doing right at all.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, the most imported foods are staples like rice and maize. Other commonly imported goods include wheat and palm oil ­­– two ingredients in short supply globally due to the ongoing war between two of the biggest producers and exporters, Russia and Ukraine. North Africa is likely to be the most affected by this, being the largest wheat importer in the world. Within the region, Egypt imports the most, buying approximately 85% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and 2% of the government’s budget being used to finance bread subsidies. The rest of the continent’s food supply has been impacted by the war too. The price of staple food in sub-Saharan Africa has risen by nearly 24% in the past two years, the highest jump seen since the financial crisis of 2008. According to the World Economic Forum, the inflation represents a 8.5% increase in the cost of a consumer’s average food basket.

Indigenous cash crops in Africa include cassava, sugar cane, maize, yams, and rice. Many of these foods make up the diets of the poorest people here. In South Africa for example, staples such as maize and bread are the most popular with the poorer rural population, with fresh fruit and vegetables being either in too short supply or too expensive. In other developing countries on the continent, the most consumed foods for the poor include rice, cassava, yam, and sweet potato, followed by taro, sorghum, cocoyam, and plantain. While dense in energy, these foods are very low in other macronutrients such as protein and fat, which are essential to a healthy diet. Dependency on such foods has resulted in the development of a ‘hidden hunger’ crisis in the sub-Saharan region, which has left many children and young adults suffering from weakened immune systems, as well as stunted physical and intellectual growth.

A traditional African farm north of Konso in Ethiopia

Poorer rural communities in the sub-Saharan region suffer the most from the ‘hidden hunger’ crisis.

Poorer rural communities in the sub-Saharan region suffer the most from the ‘hidden hunger’ crisis.

Millions living in poor rural communities also lack the essential micronutrients they need because their diet lacks food diversity. Intense hunger hotspots include countries in the Horn of Africa such as Djibouti, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya, where severe droughts have torn through the region in recent decades, destroying essential harvests. According to the UN, 37 million people in this area are predicted to reach the ‘Crisis’ phase of the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale (IPC3) in the near future. If nothing improves, these countries could move further up to a state of ‘Emergency’ and ‘Famine’ ­– the most serious levels on the scale.

Educating children and young adults

If Africa’s agricultural sector is to tackle the most urgent issues affecting its food system efficiently, it needs to rely on young people to support it.

There is no shortage of interest in agricultural careers in South Africa, according to Vernon Hambrock – founder of the online recruitment agency for farmers and agribusinesses, Plaas Bestuurder (translating to ‘Farm Manager’.) Some of the most popular farming jobs in the country are Farm Managers followed by Assistant and Junior Farm Managers, he says. He set up the recruitment site in 2021 to help farmers identify candidates which have the necessary expertise, knowledge, and competence to work in a farming role. “With the increased demand for food, farm management has developed over the past decade into a more scientific-centred approach to ensure that maximum production per hectare is achieved, irrespective of what is farmed,” he says. “The application of modern technology and accurate data helps to drive the decisions that farmers make, and it is important that Farm Managers adapt to the way we farm now.”

Despite the demand for farming roles being met by a growing interest in agriculture, some recent reports state there is an increasing shortage of skilled agri-tech workers in South Africa. Elsewhere, a growing issue for the sector is the ageing population of farmers, says Ken Lohento. Part of the solution to such problems may lie in instilling interest in African agriculture in children from a young age, he adds. “In 2020 The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) launched the project, ‘Start Them Early Program (STEP)’ in Africa, which stresses the importance of developing agriculture acumen early at school, in order to ‘catch them young’,” he says.

Two tea farmers harvesting their hard earned crops

Young tea harvesters

Young tea harvesters

For Professor Oniang’o, it is also vital to help children develop an understanding of Africa’s food system. She currently works with children in primary schools across Kenya, teaching them how to grow crops using different methods. The programme was originally known as the 4K Club (the fours Ks meaning ‘Kuungana, Kufanya, Kusaidia Kenya’ in Kiswahili, loosely translating to ‘coming together, to act, to help Kenya’). First introduced in Kenyan schools in the 80s and 90s, it soon became defunct as the curriculum started to change. The programme’s relaunch during the COVID-19 pandemic offered an exciting opportunity, says Oniang’o. “As the children go through life, they [can understand] where food comes from, and also the importance of security,” she says. She calls her pupils ‘hunger fighters’ as she teaches them the importance of food availability to all, and how to maximise the use of resources that are available to them across the continent. She hopes to introduce more sustainable and contemporary crop growing techniques at the schools, like vertical farming, so children can learn about the latest food production technologies.

The more kids learn about food, the more likely they are to recognise and support the introduction of useful innovations and policies in Africa, she says. “I usually tell [these children], whatever you are going to be – whether it is a doctor or a pilot – you need to understand where food comes from. All of us have to eat and when you understand more about it, you will also understand why there must be policies in place to make sure everybody’s catered for.”

Besides teaching children about agricultural techniques, Lohento also believes the education system should do more to support entrepreneurship from a young age, and specifically “the design of successful business models,” which many digital agricultural services still struggle with. “Enhancing digitalisation knowledge in agriculture curricula as well as strengthening collaboration between the industry, incubators and university research institutes are other key strategies,” he adds.

The innovators

One of the major challenges to improve food security is the inefficiency of supply chains. Informal retail still dominates in most countries across the continent, meaning it operates with little or no governmental regulation or taxation. One consequence of informal trade has been that consumers have had to spend extortionate amounts on food. Recently this has become an even bigger issue for the growing urban population in many African countries ­– a group that is more vulnerable to food inflation than those living in rural areas as they are less likely to grow their own produce. Research from the WEF shows that the United States population spends around 6% of its income on food, in comparison to people living in African countries such as Algeria, Kenya and Nigeria, where people spend at least 40%. It is the poorest people in Africa that are having to spend the most. In South Africa for instance, while 10 years ago individuals would have needed R335 (GBP £17.35) a month to afford enough food to obtain the minimum number of calories needed to survive, last year they would have had to spend R624 (GBP £31) a month.

black men on bikes at banana market in Uganda

Informal retail still dominates in most African countries.

Informal retail still dominates in most African countries.

Supply chain inefficiency in Africa’s informal retail market has encouraged several e-commerce platforms to emerge onto the agri-foodtech scene. By helping to streamline supply chains, these start-ups can ensure farmers are paid fairly and consumers don’t spend extortionate amounts on food. For example, the Nigerian online platform Princepally brings consumers together with farmers, manufacturers, and wholesalers to make food affordable for everyone across the value chain and improve overall distribution in the country. Kenya is also home to its own successful platform Twiga Foods, which featured on TIME’s list of 100 Most Influential Companies of 2022. The company’s technology connects consumers, vendors, and suppliers through its digital app to increase the range of fresh produce available. Twiga collects foods from the farms, and farmers receive payment through the online money platform M-Pesa within 24 hours. Vendors then place their order with a sales representative through Twiga’s app and the company distributes the produce using its own vehicles at no extra charge.

For other start-ups, crop health is key to addressing food security. One such example is AgriPredict, a Zambian company who has developed a downloadable application which helps farmers to monitor crop disease and pests. The technology alerts users when a disease or pest infestation is detected. Through the app, farmers take a picture of a diseased plant so that the system can diagnose the issue. It can also recommend treatment options and give details of the closest agro-input dealer in the region, helping farmers address issues quickly and prevent further crop losses.

Developments are also emerging in climate forecasting, which predict how the weather might impact food supplies and prepare for any potential shortages. One such company working in this area is Flamingoo Foods. As well as being a leading rice producer in the Tanzanian Rukwa Valley, the company also predicts food deficit and surplus by collecting and analysing weather data, then ensures enough food is available in affected areas by adjusting storage and implementing distribution strategies.

Building up a strong aquaculture ecosystem is also essential to ensure the continent’s future food security, according to the research organisation FoodTechAfrica. The coordinated project with Dutch business consulting group Larive International targets areas in Eastern Africa such as Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and Southern Kenya for development. It has set up training centres to increase the number of aquaculture entrepreneurs in these regions and increase investments into aquaculture projects from public and private sector stakeholders.

Several start-ups across the continent have also been trying to find a solution to malnutrition through developments in fortified foods. Ethiopia-based BeNu Foods develops affordable high protein biscuits for children to tackle malnourishment in the region. Each biscuit is made from locally produced raw grains and nuts and contains 18g of protein, a similar amount of protein found in an egg. The start-up piloted the product at a school feeding programme at the Melka Oba school in Ethiopia. Following the introduction of these biscuits to the school there was a 50% increase in class attendance and academic performance as well as a reduction in general illness in children. The organisation is supported by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) as well as Royal DSM.

Founded by Jolenta Joseph in 2019, while studying for a BSc in Human Nutrition at Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzanian fortified foods producer Sanavita was also established in response to the growing malnutrition crisis. According to the most recent Tanzania Nutrition Survey, the prevalence of children under five who classified as underweight increased from 13% in 2014 to 15% in 2018. To tackle the problem, Sanavita started to develop biofortified products, launching on the market a sweet potato fortified with Vitamin A first. The company now sells a number of foods, including vitamin A, zinc, and iron-fortified biscuits, flour, maize and beans.

While climate issues in some African countries make it harder to grow certain crops, a solution to this problem could lie in preserving and reviving the country’s indigenous produce. Some countries have been working to conserve their unique plant ecosystem for many years. First established in 1976 under a different name, the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute is one of very few living seed banks worldwide, let alone in Africa. Partnering with local farmers, the Institute grows crops from around 40,000 of its 62,000 seed collection, which allows for the conservation of genetic material from rarer plants which can be used again in the years to come. 

While the potential benefits of Africa’s own crops have been realised for some time, Professor Oniang’o argues this area still carries huge untapped potential. “It’s important to emphasise the production of indigenous foods which are climate resilient,” she says. “Some of the traditional foods we have like cassava – a better version of the sweet potato – they are much better to the environment than some more modern food types.”

Kenyan vegetable farmer carrying a crate of spinach on her head

One of the major benefits of indigenous crops is that they are climate resilient.

One of the major benefits of indigenous crops is that they are climate resilient.

Start-ups are also looking for ways to incorporate more nutritious indigenous African ingredients into food products. Female-founded Local Village Foods in South Africa produces products like pasta made with the moringa plant, high-protein brown teff flour, sorghum flour and grains, fonio flour and grains, and snack bars made from baobab, mango, moringa and amaranth, which are all rich in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. While innovative, the company’s produce is only available in South Africa for the time being. Work still needs to be done to make these foods accessible too. A pack of 500g of any one of Local Village Foods’ flours for instance costs between SAR55 and SAR80 (equivalent to £2.75 and £4.00), making it an inaccessible staple for most people. 

While by no means a viable solution for African food security for the time being, proponents of cultured meat believe once cell-based products are approved for sale and consumption and their price becomes affordable, the industry could play a pivotal role in tackling world hunger and climate issues. Whilst compared to Europe, the US and Israel, Africa has a fraction of cultured meat start-ups, there are a few players in the continent. Mogale Meat, makes cultivated chicken, and has a cell biobank for cultured antelope meat, whilst Cape Town-based Mzansi Meat is working on cell-based beef. Progress is also being made in the cultured seafood sector by early-stage start-up Sea-Stematic, based in Johannesburg – the first African company to develop cultured fish from primary muscle cells and plant-derived protein scaffold. Also in Cape Town is biotech company De Novo Dairy, working on fermented animal-free versions of dairy proteins such as lactoferrin.

Funding and governance

Improvements to nutrition in Africa won’t come without the right funding. There is no question that large investments enter the continent, says Oniang’o. Whether or not they’re being used in the most efficient way however is another question altogether. “A lot of money comes to [Africa], but it really doesn’t reach where it is intended to because we don’t include the right partners,” she says. “It’s a question of how much goodwill there is to change our funding model to make sure that our partners include those ones who actually come face to face with these problems.”

Development funding is typically given to governments, Oniang’o continues, and this money is still not distributed to the small NGOs working on the ground level that need it. No matter how much innovative work is done, it is those in power that hold the key to solving many food-related problems in Africa, she says. “We may have all these great scientists doing new things but at the end of the day, governance is absolutely critical. The government is like being head of household and ensuring that the whole family is fed.”

While there is by no means a shortage of innovators trying to tackle food security in the continent, other factors such as Africa’s youth, developments in food and agriculture, education, and most significantly governance and funding are essential to addressing the growing nutrition crisis. Despite these hurdles, there is hope that the continent’s food system will prosper. “I still believe in this Africa which can feed the rest of the world,” says Oniang’o. “Through innovation, we can come up with special products which are nutritious, and which can be exported to the rest of the world. We don’t have to always be on the receiving end.”


Related content