THE bottom 25 countries on a list of 105 ranked on food security are African, with the exception of Cambodia and Haiti. Burundi, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo are right at the bottom of the newly launched Global Food Security Index — as they are on many other indices measuring development and issues related to the human condition.
Despite it being a country with a wide divide between rich and poor, South Africa sits at a more respectable 40th place, joined in the middle of the rankings by Botswana, Ghana and most of the North African countries.
The index, an initiative driven by US science and technology multinational Du Pont and put together by the Economist Intelligence Unit, provides a way to assess individual countries on a variety of indicators, including food consumption as a share of household expenditure, agriculture infrastructure and food safety. It will be adjusted regularly to reflect food-price changes.
The index provides a means of measuring food security country by country. One can only hope that the low rankings of most African states will shame their governments into applying themselves to developing the agriculture sector. The index is intended to help political leaders understand the issues better and see where areas of policy intervention may be most useful.
Several of the countries near the bottom of the rankings, such as Mozambique, Ethiopia and Rwanda, will be among the fastest-growing economies in the world soon. Ethiopia, despite its poor human rights record, has been proactive in developing its agriculture sector and Rwanda is also improving agricultural output.
But in most African countries, leaders often pay lip service to agriculture, despite the fact the sector accounts for about 90% of economic activity. Food security is high on the list of global priorities as the world faces the reality of having 7-billion mouths — and counting — to feed. In Africa, with high population growth and urbanisation rates, many farmers are using the same farming techniques they used 100 years ago. Productivity and yields are low, and produce is wasted because of poor rural infrastructure.
Only a handful of African governments that signed up to the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme in 2003, which was designed to achieve food security by 2015, have met their commitments to spend at least 10% of their annual budgets on agriculture. Nearly 30 countries spend less than 5%.
Over the past decade, global food prices rose twice as fast as inflation and food-price spikes in 2008 pushed 44-million people into poverty, according to the World Bank. Most of these are likely to be in Africa. It is estimated that more than $50bn a year is spent on food imports by a continent that has shifted from being a net exporter of agricultural products in the 1960s to a net importer. And yet fertile land is one of Africa’s greatest resources.
Good leadership, high investment in the sector and constant policy innovation have been the hallmarks of many Asian agricultural revolutions. In Africa, there has been a tendency to look for quick-fix solutions to the problems of agriculture rather than sustainable solutions. Food aid continues to pour into Africa, further undermining agriculture development.
Despite greater commercial development over the past few years due to mostly private-sector investment, agriculture remains the poor cousin of African development. It bears the brunt of poor operating environments and weak macroeconomic policy. It is also the victim of political exploitation and urban drift. The elites who make policy are focused on the urban opportunities. Rural populations are generally left to fend for themselves.
Companies such as Du Pont are looking at innovation to solve agricultural problems in emerging markets, but that is no substitute for political leadership. The geopolitics of food is now a global priority, and collaboration between the private and public sectors to address the issues is more urgent than ever.
As Africa’s politicians expend time and energy on finding ways to extract more revenue from mining, most are ignoring a much bigger resource that could, if managed properly, make Africa very rich. • Games is CEO of Africa At Work, an African business consultancy.