African Union’s decision in picking Nutrition and Food Security as top of the agenda to be discussed instead of coup d’états and peace and security seemed a misplaced priority at first glance. But it makes perfect sense given food insecurity is behind most grievances and conflicts happening across the continent.
According to the World Food Program (WFP) and African Union report, African countries are losing 9.2 percent of their GDP on average to child under-nutrition, of which the lowest, two percent is in Egypt, and the biggest 16.5 percent is in Ethiopia. Ethiopia loses USD 4.5 billion annually.
Food insecurity in the context of low-income countries like Ethiopia is the inability to get the 2,100 kilocalorie per day, which is FAO’s minimal standard required to move, talk and undertake daily activities. In middle income countries, food security is more about balancing protein, fat, carbohydrates and other ingredients, as per the Dietary Diversification Scorecard. In advanced economies, the threshold is balancing micro-nutrients in daily consumption. A country or person is food secure, if food is always available, accessible, and usable.
“Physical performance, emotional intelligence and thinking capacity depends on the kind and quality of food we intake. If a pregnant woman and her baby had balanced nutrition, the child becomes a thinker. Otherwise, the country has a generation with emotionally unintelligent, terrorists and warmongering people,” said Messay Mulugeta (PhD), lecturer of food security at College of Development Studies at Addis Ababa University.
About 346.4 million Africans suffer from severe food insecurity, while 452 million suffer from moderate food insecurity.
Though many African countries managed to slash poverty since 2000, the prevalence of food insecurity went on an upward curvature since 2014, driven by conflict, climate extremities, economic downturns and unaffordability of healthy diets. The number of food insecure Africans increased by 81.6 million people since 2014.
The number of Africans facing hunger increased by 46.3 million since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic induced economic slowdown, affecting livelihoods, especially in the tourism, remittances, commodity exports, markets and commodity value chains.
In 2020, more than one in five people in Africa faced hunger. Prevalence of food insecure people in Africa halved from 49 percent in 2000 to 23 percent in 2020. But the number of undernourished people in Africa increased from 199 million in 2000 to 251 million by 2020, of which 115 million are found in east Africa. South Africa has only 5.6 million food insecure people.
Ethiopia managed to slash the rate of undernourished people from 32 million to 18.2 million. Prevalence of moderate food insecure people in Ethiopia stood at 56 percent, while severe insecurity is at 16.4 percent, according to FAO.
Despite various initiatives launched by the AU as well as individual member states, ensuring food security remains to be far-fetched. As a result, achieving AU ‘s Malabo Declaration of ending hunger by 2025, Ethiopia’s Sekota Declaration of ending stunting by 2030 and SDG’s ‘zero hunger’ by 2030 seem already unattainable.
Even though African states adopted plans to commit 10 percent of their national budget to agriculture, many countries lag behind. Import of agricultural commodities is becoming the preferred option with east Africa’s food import reaching 47 billion in 2019, following climate change and locust outbreaks.
“Ethiopia is among few African countries meeting the 10 percent budget allocation for agriculture. Agricultural production is also substantially increasing. However, the continuous challenges posed by El Niño, la Nina, desert locusts, pandemic and conflict, piled-up the already sediment food security challenges,” said Isayas Lema, Crop development director at the Ministry of Agriculture. Over 41 million quintal of crop was lost due to the year-long war in northern Ethiopia.
The failure to modernize the agricultural sector is also the major reason for Ethiopia’s failures to attain structural transformation in the economy, resulting in the government to establish an Agricultural Transformation Agency in 2010.
Yet, the rate of stunting in Ethiopia stands at 38 percent. The economic cost of stunted students reached USD eight million annually in Ethiopia, which has the highest productivity loss in the labor market due to child undernourishment. For instance, economic value of working-hours-lost constitutes 12 percent of Ethiopia’s GDP, which is only two percent in Uganda, one percent in Swaziland and 0.5 percent in Egypt.
For many scholars, it is a paradox to see Africa, comprising 60 percent of the earth’s arable land, face severe food security problems. In fact, the current rate of global food production is enough to feed 1.5 times the Earth’s population (which means 11.5 billion people), according to FAO.
According to Messay, the factors for Africa’s food insecurity can be categorized into internal and external factors.
“Internally, climate change, high dependency culture, conflict, intolerance, and low- work culture are contributing to the insecurity. Even religion has negative traces,” said Messay.
One of the internal factors highly contributing to the food insecurity in Ethiopia, is ‘selectiveness’, according to Messay, who has conducted numerous researches in the area.
“The problem in Ethiopia is, we are poor, but are highly selective. We want to eat only Enjera and wot. There are so many edible items in the country, but we do not use them due to wrong attitudes. For instance, there are no roots like sweet potato in our hotels, and university cafes. For instance, Arba Minch University is surrounded by many edible food items, but the university purchases Teff from Gojam for student cafes,” said Messay.
“In universities in China, there are more than 100 items of food provided for students. South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan are the same. They have boiled maize on the dish. Almost all Ethiopians are wasting edible resources, because of bad attitude towards certain food items,” Messay added.
The food insecurity gap in Ethiopia and developing countries in general is also opening the door for the use of GMO’s. Especially, multinational corporations and aid organizations are pushing to supply GMO’s to bridge the nutrition and food security gaps.
“We still do not know what some food items imported to Ethiopia contain. We must study them in labs. Why do we import cheese for pizza and burgers, while having the largest livestock population? China and a number of Asian countries, ensured their food sovereignty, because they utilized their own indigenous resources for food,” said Messay.
Externally, there are factors contributing for the continent’s unfolding food insecurity despite various initiatives.
Scholars accused western countries that they do not want Africa to be self-sufficient but to remain a raw-material source for the west’s economies. Brain drain is also another challenge.
“The west exploits rare earth materials, minerals used for satellites, telecom, microchips, nuclear and others, from Africa. But currently, the external factors are also aggravating the internal factors,” said Fisseha Zegeye, researcher at EIAR.
Though the EIAR celebrated its 50th year, the productivity gap between research centers and farmlands remain wide.
“We are working on finding and diffusing technologies that boost productivity, with the aim of ensuring food security, boosting export and industrial inputs,” added Fisseha.
During the just ended AU summit in Addis Ababa, AU officials also urged member states to commit further investments to ensure food security.
PM Abiy emphasized that the government of Ethiopia is committing more investment on irrigation projects in lowland areas, to minimize the dependency on rain-fed agriculture. The PM had also initiated cloud seeding project since last year.
To attain zero hunger by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa’s per capita GDP must grow at 3.5 percent annually on average, according to studies. This requires a maximum effort, to change the 2.5 percent growth rate trend over the past decade.
For Atnafu Gebremeskel (PhD), an economist and senior researcher on inflation at the AAU; it is not only improvements in agricultural productivity is needed, but also improving people’s income is critical to save the dwindling purchasing capacity of people.
“More Ethiopians are falling in the poverty trap and need support packages from the government. The government also needs to ensure peace and stability, so that agricultural commodities can reach from rural to the urban areas,” said Atnafu.
Improving land policy, channeling more finance towards agricultural investments, mechanization, logistics, local value addition, averting climate impacts, modernizing agriculture and straightening the market systems, are highly recommended home-works to ensure the supply-side of food security. From the demand side, diversifying dishes, minimizing food wastage and anchoring income equality requires practical emphasis, according to experts.