/ 9 August 2022

Improving cross-border trade policy is vital in solving the African food security crisis

(Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

Africa can feed itself. It can also feed people beyond the borders of its 54 countries. We have that potential and key to unlocking it is the streamlining of cross-border trade policy.

The opposite is what we see today — too many of our fellow Africans face food insecurity, or famine. Our brothers and sisters across the East African region urgently need humanitarian assistance to prevent large-scale starvation. Parts of Southern Africa are experiencing drought and heat stress which are affecting food security in that region. We can change this scenario.

After all, the African Development Bank estimates that 65% of the world’s uncultivated,   arable land is in Africa and our labour costs are generally low. We haven’t tapped into that potential.

Imagine the benefits that would come to Africa’s 1.2-billion citizens if our countries earned more revenue through customs duties and taxes from our broader and more effective food production. That is revenue that could be invested in services such as universal health coverage, education and more of the infrastructure we need — roads, railways, harbours, cold storage facilities and more — to export still more food to the world.

We could completely change the game.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, just over half of Africa’s population is involved in the agricultural sector. Increased agricultural productivity would create more jobs and would lead to an increase in individual incomes. The knock-on effects of better and broader agricultural activity would allow families and communities to enjoy a higher quality of life, increasing their ability to afford better nutrition, education, healthcare and other goods and services.

But without integrating cross-border trade policies and regulations, none of this will happen. There is no point producing more food, and food products, if we cannot move them around efficiently. We need to be able to sell them abroad and between each other.

Without better cross-border trade integration we will still find ourselves in a situation where people in a region that has a food surplus cannot send supplies to their sisters and brothers, starving in another region, quickly enough. 

Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni is one of the few high-profile leaders advocating free cross-border trade in East Africa. In his recent speech at the 22nd Ordinary Summit of the East African Community Heads of State, Museveni urged governments to drop policies that promote protectionism because they deny consumers access to imported, quality food at affordable prices.

Sadly, Africa has steadily lost ground in terms of its participation in global food systems. We need to reverse this trend.

There are several reasons for this lost market share — too little of the African agricultural sector is mechanised and we are not taking advantage of innovations and technological advances. In fact, there isn’t even enough use of fertiliser and irrigation to boost yield. There is also the high cost of acquiring the mechanisation technology and fertilisers needed to contend with, as well as a lack of government subsidies for agriculture. The developed world subsidises its agriculture, making it difficult for Africa’s sector to compete.

Deploying all these technologies will boost production and mean we are able to meet export quotas — too often we miss out because we don’t produce enough to export in the required volumes. Furthermore, we have challenges in meeting and maintaining export-quality standards.

ForAfrika’s focus is primarily on ensuring our fellow Africans have enough nutritious food to eat, and we do this in two ways: we support households with food donations and we work with them to ensure they are better able to produce food. Too many African smallholder farmers do not have the inputs they need — quality seeds and equipment, mostly — to produce a surplus so they can earn by selling produce at local markets.

We help them with these inputs and with training in more intensive agronomic practices for vegetable and field-crop production. We also provide training on how to preserve food post-harvest.

To reclaim Africa’s place in world food markets, and to strengthen our continent’s resilience in the face of an increasingly uncertain world — the worldwide shortage in grain and cooking oil because of the war in Ukraine is a case in point — our governments must invest far more than they currently are in the sector, including increasing the use of technology, research and scientific advances and insights to improve and broaden production and to safeguard produce after it has been harvested. This will become increasingly important as climate change takes greater hold — technology can help farmers mitigate against climate change and adapt to its effects.

For its part, ForAfrika is working with communities to fast track the adoption of climate-smart agriculture. We promote the use of energy-efficient cooking fuel, which reduces tree felling — forest cover brings overall temperatures down — and is one way we can mitigate against the rising temperatures that go along with climate change. We educate farmers on agricultural practices that conserve scarce water and on pest control using low-cost indigenous methods that do not contaminate the environment. We are also working to ensure small-scale farmers have access to the seeds of drought-resistant crop varieties.

On the policy side, the good news is, to date, 43 countries have signed the African Union’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme which was launched in July 2003 as a flagship continental programme for AU member states to increase investment in the agriculture sector. The programme aims to have each signatory put 10% of its gross domestic product into agriculture. Our governments can reap huge benefits if they achieve this aim.

And while there has been good progress in streamlining intra-African trade policy, there is a lot of room to improve, especially in practice.

According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development’s Economic Development in Africa Report 2021, intra-African trade accounts for 14.4% of total African exports. We can, and must, increase this percentage.

Also, we need to reduce the high cost of trading across borders in Africa — something the African Continental Free Trade Agreement and various smaller free-trade organisations, such as the Southern African Development Community and the East African Community, aim to do. The World Bank estimates the free trade agreement will raise the incomes of 68-million people across the continent. Unfortunately, its implementation has been delayed by a number of factors, not least the Covid-19 pandemic.

We have a lot to gain if we invest in agricultural and trade infrastructure, in better farming methods and in streamlining cross-border, intra-African trade. In comparison to tariffs imposed in central Asia and Europe, Africa’s cross-border trade policy performance in trade logistics is poor. “Sub-Saharan Africa’s logistics performance index scores are, on average, 25% lower than those of countries in Europe and central Asia,” the UN report concludes.

The global economy is unstable and indications are that it will not calm down soon. Also, climate change is here to stay. We must become more self-sufficient and better able to weather the shocks that come from global events.

We must do this and we can. Let’s really get going.

Fred Mutenyo is country manager in Uganda for NGO ForAfrika

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.