Wilma den Hartigh
In 2050 there will be nine-billion people in the world and in Africa alone, the UN estimates there will be almost two-billion people living on the continent in 38 years’ time. The big question is not only how we are going to feed so many people, but also how to do it nutritiously.
This presents both challenges and opportunities to produce enough wholesome food for everyone – and many of the solutions are in Africa.
At The Economist’s recent Feeding the World conference in Johannesburg, global leaders from agribusiness, food production, science and NGOs discussed how Africa can take ownership of its food security agenda, accelerate agricultural growth and develop sustainable and competitive agriculture sectors.
The world is looking to Africa to take up its role in solving the global food crisis. The continent has more than enough land (Africa has 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land) and willing farmers to develop robust, sustainable and competitive agriculture sectors.
Speakers highlighted the need for food security and nutrition solutions that involve civil society organisations, individuals, governments and the private sector, working in partnership with each other.
The event was organised by the conference division of The Economist newspaper, and is one of numerous global conferences on important issues such as food security, health, infrastructure and science.
Food and nutrition security
Speaking at the event, Sean de Cleene said food security in the world has reached a tipping point, and he is optimistic about the opportunities that lie ahead. Cleene is the senior VP of Yara International, a global firm specialising in agricultural products and environmental protection agents.
“I am more optimistic today than ever because we see Africa starting to take control of its own growth agenda,” De Cleene said.
“We are reaching a tipping point with more investment into localised agriculture. We are seeing unprecedented interest in collaboration to solve these challenges.”
Various speakers agreed that it is important to establish a link between agriculture and health, by improving the nutritional qualities of food. Improved nutrition would address issues such as under-nourishment, which causes the death of millions of children every year.
“We should not just focus on improving productivity of farmers,“ said Shenggen Fan, director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “In the past agriculture was designed to achieve maximum production, not nutrition.”
Fan said agriculture has a role to play in addressing undernourishment, lack of access to food and hidden hunger – a situation where the consumer is unaware that food is not providing enough nutrition. “We have to slow down this trend,” he said.
He suggested interventions such as subsidies for fruit and vegetable production, and suggested that unhealthy food be taxed, making money available to promote healthy food production and research.
Business and subsistence farmers working together
One of the main messages coming from the conference is the need for public-private partnerships to create robust agricultural industries in Africa and promote food security – and there are already success stories.
Mario Reis, managing director of dairy products producer Danone Southern Africa, said it is important for corporates to invest in Africa. This approach is already showing positive results for Danone and hundreds of pastoral farming families in Senegal, who have been farming with milk-producing livestock for generations.
“In Senegal, 90% of all milk consumed is imported. However, this is an aberration because 30% of the population rear cattle that produce milk,” Reis explained.
Danone started a venture to help pastoral farmers to utilise their milk, by setting up a facility that collects local milk for processing into value-added dairy products. The project is also providing technical advice and veterinary services for farmers, which has helped them to increase milk output and take good care of their animals.
The venture, which started in 2006, has made it possible for 650 farmers to stay on their land, farm profitably and live exclusively from milk production.
“This is an example of helping a whole community – all through agriculture and related activities,” Reis said. The project is also bringing about rural development as farmers are earning a living, their families can eat more nutritious food and children can attend school.
Frank Braeken, executive VP for fast moving consumer goods company Unilever in Africa, added that food security and economic opportunity can be aligned.
“The main objective is to convince sceptics of the important role that business can play in this area,” Braeken said.
He added that new business models should allow companies to target growth, while contributing to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.
“The question and challenge is so big that we need a dramatic shift in thinking about how we do business,” he said. “There is no doubt that discussions around food security must zone in on Africa.
“Sub-Saharan Africa holds the most of potential for future agricultural expansion. Whatever role African countries will play must be in the interest of their people.”
Optimising food production
Jason Clay, senior VP for market transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, said the agriculture sector must find ways to intensify production sustainably, using the same amount of natural resources.
“By 2050, 9.4-billion people will need twice as much food and fibre, and this means every system of production has to double,” Clay said. “We have to figure out how to optimise what we have.”
He identified food waste, which occurs by either throwing away food or post-harvest losses, as one where food production can be optimised. “If we can eliminate waste, we have to produce half as much of the new food we would need by 2050,” he explained.
Improving Africa’s neglected food crops
Improving crop genetics is another possibility. Clay said more research is needed into producing crops with a higher nutritional content, using the same number of hectares.
Various speakers pointed out that more research is necessary to promote the genetic improvement of Africa’s neglected food crops. Farmers should also be encouraged to grow a more diverse range of local crops such as sweet potato, cassava and millet. Many farmers moved away from these nutrition-rich crops to maize production, mainly because of market opportunities and price.
Clay pointed out although Africa and the world will need much more food by 2050, innovative thinking throughout the food production value chain could reduce the pressure on farmers to meet this demand.