Tackling Africa’s food crisis…call for equal partnership with EU

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SUB-SAHARAN Africa is in the throes of a climate emergency, with hunger levels in the region on an unprecedented scale.

Years of drought, widespread flooding and economic disarray have left 257 million people facing severe food shortages, with women and children bearing the brunt of the crisis.

Zimbabwe is already facing its worst starvation in a decade, with 7, 7 million people – half the population – acutely food insecure. 

About 20 percent of people in Zambia – a regional breadbasket – and Lesotho face acute food insecurity, as does 10 percent of the population of Namibia.

In Mali, recurrent floods and droughts have made life difficult for farmers.

The worst desert locust invasion in 70 years threatens food security in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and South Sudan.

Swarms of desert locusts, more than three times the size of New York City — an estimated 192 billion insects — have been spotted in northeast Kenya.

According to World Food Programme, some swarms can consume as much food as 35 000 people in a single day and, with the right winds, travel up to 150 km a day.

The crisis has been aggravated by surging food prices, large-scale livestock losses and rising unemployment.

In Zimbabwe, commodity prices have risen sharply, and a network of transporters, known as omalayitsha, have sprung up on the borders, with relatives sending food parcels from neighbouring countries. 

Kiosks for money transfers have also popped up in rural areas, suggesting people are increasingly reliant on remittances from abroad, which in 2018 were about £980million.

The severity of the situation is largely a consequence of the cumulative effects of climate-related natural disasters in the form of recurrent widespread drought — the region has only had one normal rainy season in the last five years — cyclones and persistent flooding.

Last year in March, Cyclone Idai hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, leaving 900 people dead, thousands displaced and more than one million short of food. 

Cyclone Kenneth hit Mozambique six weeks later.

The latest edition of the Global Report on Food Crises indicates that the drivers of acute food insecurity include conflict, climate-related shocks, natural disasters, plant and animal pests, diseases and economic downturn. 

To address these underlying causes, Zimbabwe will, this month, host the 31st United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation Regional Conference for Africa in the resort town of Victoria Falls.

The conference, expected to attract more than 500 delegates, will run from March 23 to 27 under the theme: “Agriculture and rural transformation in Africa: promoting inclusive agribusiness and regional integration for attainment of sustainable development goals.”

Speaking to journalists, Lands, Agriculture, Water and Rural Resettlement Minister Perrance Shiri said the conference will afford local Ministers, departments and organisations the opportunity to participate in technical discussions, presentations and formulation of Regional positions.

“This will allow them to better articulate and drive matters relating to agricultural and rural transformations in Africa, in line with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s vision of modernising the economy through Agriculture.”

FAO Deputy Regional Representative for Africa Jocelyn Brown Hall said the conference present opportunities to discuss science-based solutions to tackling agricultural and environmental challenges.

This comes as the region is marked by strong dependence on rain-fed agriculture, natural resources and limited infrastructure in rural areas. 

More so, the region is projected to suffer further water stress, more frequent droughts, floods and other alteration in rainfall patterns, leading to lower agriculture yields unless adaptation measures are taken.

However, the good news is that Africa’s economic growth is rising and expected to register 3, 9 percent in 2020 and 4, 1 percent in 2021, according to the AfDB’s 2020 African Economic Outlook report.

According to the World Bank, African agriculture and agribusiness could be worth $1 trillion in the next 10 years. 

Although agricultural intra-African exports rose from USD 2 billion in 2000 to USD 13.7 billion in 2013, they remain relatively modest and often informal. 

Despite its vast agricultural potential, Africa has remained a net importer of agricultural products in the last three decades. 

In 1980, Africa had a balanced agricultural trade when both exports and imports were at about USD 14 billion, but by 2010 its agricultural imports exceeded exports by about USD 20 billion, according to FAO.

The increase in agricultural and food imports has been particularly striking for basic foodstuffs such as dairy products, edible oils and fats, meat and meat products, sugars and cereals (especially wheat and rice), implying that food imports have been playing an increasingly important role in ensuring food security. 

Regional integration, including through greater trade in goods and services, is one of the key aspirations of the AU’s Agenda 2063, as expressed in the Ten-Year Implementation Plan (2014–2023) adopted as the Malabo Declaration in 2014. 

The signing of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement is an opportunity to accelerate growth and sustainable development by increasing trade, including trade in agricultural products. 

‘Horse and Rider’ relations

As Ministers of Agriculture are to deliberate in the majestic town of Victoria Falls, they should bear in mind that progress of the AfCFTA, however, will be stalled by the EU’s agriculture development policy.

The EU and Africa relations, sealed by the Cotonou Agreement, have been unsatisfactory and unhealthy so far.

It is important to note that EU priorities for African development do not correspond to the continent’s areas of greatest need. 

The joint institution between the EU and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries for agricultural development ostensibly strives to “…advance food security, resilience and inclusive economic growth in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific through innovations in sustainable agriculture…,” yet the solutions it envisions would be marginal improvements, not transformational changes.

To boost productivity, Africa requires major modernisation such as such as irrigation, tractors, improved grain varieties, fertilisers, and better storage facilities to ameliorate food insecurity and close the widening gap between African crop outputs and those of other developing regions.

Yet the EU flatly states in its strategic plan: “More food is not the answer to hunger in Africa” despite acknowledging that food imports are high and exports low.

Strengthening the value chains of small and medium-sized agribusinesses is desirable but not ideal, as it reinforces the existing trade dynamic of exporting raw materials to Europe.

In sum, EU agricultural development policy is largely a neo-colonial enterprise committed to protecting its own agricultural market and producing value-added goods for export.

The agricultural policy is a greater vehicle for European soft power and merchant interests than for African capacity-building.

The EU, for its part, has made it clear that it gets the AU. 

New European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made a token trip to AU Headquarters in Addis Ababa a week after taking office in December 2019. 

She came dangling a US$188 million aid package for health programmes, electoral systems, environmental policies and economic development initiatives to buttress her message that the EU is going to be more than just a source of handouts.

“The African Union is a partner I count on and I look forward (to) working within the spirit of a true partnership of equals,” she buoyed.

And the EU has been flattering this talking point of equal partnership since 2007 when official bilateral relations between EU and AU were launched.

As expected, the bilateral framework of 2007 has done nothing toward its intended purpose of moving beyond the traditional ‘horse and rider’ relations.

It has only provided 50 million euros (about US$55 million) for technical assistance in writing the AfCFTA regulatory standards. 

Von der Leyen’s rumoured creation of an Africa Commissioner in the EU’s executive branch has not materialised and, from the look of things, it will not see the light of day.

Most tellingly, despite not wanting to talk about migration in Addis Ababa, von der Leyen is continuing the post-Cotonou negotiations that began in 2018 — which inject aid conditioned on migration control as a central plank of the relationship between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific states, where under the current agreement it is not a feature.

No wonder former Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa once said: “…dictation and prescription are the defining characteristics of EU-Africa relations. 

When you get to the negotiating table it is very clear that we are not equals.” 

And, of late, Brexit has been wasting Brussel’s time as it seeks to conclude a ‘massive’ trade deal with the US.

But for how long shall Africa tolerate being strung along in arrangements that its high representative on Cotonou, Professor Carlos Lopes, denounced?

Remember what Professor Lopes said of the current Cotonou marriage:

“In this maze, there is one loser: African Regional Integration.

There is no risk of no deal. It is not like Brexit. If we don’t have an agreement by 2020, then we will extend what we already have.”

Is Africa this desperate?

The EU’s actions make it clear that it wants to continue treating the AU as a junior partner for as long as possible.

Surely the AU and its members have other options.

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