– In Torit State, southern South Sudan, Margaret Itto is one of the farmers in Africa’s youngest country who have invested heavily in agriculture. But she is not able to access the lucrative market for her produce in the capital Juba simply because of poor roads.
“Road infrastructure in this country is a big hindrance,” said Itto. “Getting the produce from the farms to the stores, then to the market is very challenging. Many times, my workers have had to sleep in the bush because their vehicle got stuck,” she told IPS.
Itto, who grows groundnuts, sunflower, maize, beans, and sesame, among other crops, has had to endure huge post-harvest losses, especially when it rains as this makes roads impassable.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 per cent of staple foods fail to reach markets because of poor roads and market access limitations, according to the Food Sustainability Index (FSI) developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Barilla Centre for Food and Nutrition (BCFN).
To this end, importers have taken advantage of the demand by supplying low-quality food products to Africa’s cities. “Given our high cost of production, many urban dwellers end up consuming imported low-quality food because they are far cheaper than locally produced food,” observed Dr. James Nyoro, the Governor for Kiambu County in Central Kenya.
Africa’s rapidly-growing cities and food markets with a turnover of up to $250 billion per year offer the largest and fastest-growing market opportunity to the continent’s 60 million farms, according to a new report released alongside the ongoing virtual Africa Green Revolution Forum. But for African farmers to take advantage of the huge market opportunity there is a need for investment in non-urban road infrastructure, small and intermediary cities, improved urban food systems governance, and food safety regulations and enforcement, among other things.
The Africa Agriculture Status Report (AASR) — an annual findings of the state of agriculture on the continent which is authored by experts from the United Nations, various universities and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), among other institutions — highlights five key priority areas that must be taken care of.
“There will be need for improved urban food system governance, efficient urban wholesale markets, food safety regulation and enforcement, regional free trade and agricultural policy harmonisation, and agricultural research focused on high-growth, high-value food commodities,” said Prof. Rudy Rabbinge, a Professor Emeritus in Sustainable Development and Food Security at Wageningen University, and one of the lead authors of the report.
Rabbinge’s sentiments resonate with findings of an earlier report by the BCFN, that the most critical challenges are weak governance structures, insufficient or low resources and capacity, lack of professional training, and persistent conflict and lack of coherence between sectors, actors and jurisdictions.
These challenges, according to the BCFN report, are recognised in the new normative global sustainable development agendas agreed to by national governments, but they will have to be contextually relevant, locally adapted, better supported implementation efforts in food governance.
Daniele Fattibene, research scientist at the BCFN, told IPS that it is crucial to launch policies and initiatives to preserve food security in African urban areas. “COVID-19 has exposed many people in African urban areas to poverty and hunger. Most of them who were employed in casual labours lost their jobs during lockdown. While some have returned to rural areas where access to food was easier, others cannot go for this option, as they already escaped from violence or hunger,” he said.
According to Andrew Cox, the chief of staff and strategy at AGRA, a cohort of new, non-traditional actors – including city planners, mayors, district councils, trader organisations and public health professionals – are becoming key players in the implementation of agricultural policy at a time when Africa’s agri-food systems are shifting increasingly towards urban areas.
This was echoed by Fattibene, who believes that African mayors should invest in urban agriculture, as a way to shorten food chains and preserve them from sudden external shocks as a medium and long-term intervention.
“In this sense, local authorities should support smallholders producers and SMEs to form cooperatives and encourage supermarkets and other grocers to source their products locally instead of importing products,” he said, adding that they should develop tailored strategies to effectively map their food systems, taking as a reference other cities in the Global South such as Quito in Ecuador, which has developed effective urban food resilience plans.
“This may allow develop[ment] of early warning tools to avoid food emergencies in urban areas,” he told IPS.
The AASR report also gives an example of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where access to markets is the weakest in Africa, raising farm production costs and reducing the scope for profitable trade and non-farm investments.
Another challenge is to do with cross border trade policies. This was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, when countries across the globe decided to restrict food exports due to the pandemic, thereby exacerbating food insecurity, especially in Africa’s urban areas.
Locally, restrictions at the border between Kenya and Tanzania for example saw perishable foodstuff go to waste during the height of the pandemic as truck drivers waited to clear with authorities on both sides.
However, the AASR authors are optimistic that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) is moving forward and could mark a milestone in improved policy that allows scaling of investment in production, processing, and trade and much lower costs of operation.
As cities continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, Fattibene says that authorities should launch measures to protect those employed in informal sectors such as street food vendors in open air markets, who were seriously affected by the crisis, and as well support those children who rely on school meals as their main daily source of safe and nutritious food as an immediate short term measure.
“To implement all these measures, additional funding for local authorities will be required,” he said.