Women cereal farmers are key in tackling Africa’s pervasive hunger status

By Gill Hyslop contact

- Last updated on GMT

African women continue to dominate the informal food processing and trading sectors. Pic: GettyImages/dmbaker
African women continue to dominate the informal food processing and trading sectors. Pic: GettyImages/dmbaker

Related tags: Malabo Montpellier Panel, Food security, women empowerment, Africa, Sustainability, Agriculture, UN SDGs, zero hunger, AKADEMIYA2063

Evidence suggests that one in five Africans faced hunger in 2020 – more than double the number of people in other parts of the world. A recent report by the Malabo Montpellier Panel to tackle food security in the region highlights the importance of women taking control of nutrition-relevant resources and decision making.
  • Women continue to dominate the informal food processing and trading sectors;
  • 70% of post-harvest activities are undertaken by women;
  • Initiatives such as Muhanga Food Processing Industries (MFPI), a women-only agro-processing company established by the local NGO COCOF in 2004, are contributing to mechanisation efforts;
  • MFPI buys soya, maize, sorghum and wheat from five cooperatives, which includes 2,805 farmers, 83.5% of whom are women;
  • Women account for about 60% of informal traders at border checkpoints in West and Central Africa.

These are some of the highlights in the recently unveiled Recipes for Success: Policy Innovations to Transform Africa’s Food Systems and Build Resilience.​ Launched at the 9th​ meeting of the Malabo Montpellier Forum on 23 November 2021, the report presents an analysis of over 50 country reports published between 2017 and 2020, offering a roadmap of government action toward better performing and more resilient African food systems.

Layih Butake
Dr Layih Butake

Dr Layih Butake, director of Communication and Outreach at AKADEMIYA2063 – a Rwandan non-profit working to support the efforts of the Member States of the African Union to achieve the key goals of the agenda 2063​– takes a deeper look.

Not on track to achieve SDG 2 by 2030

Africa’s trajectory to emergence and self-sufficiency has seen significant progress in achieving global and continental milestones such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Malabo Declaration.

However, food security and improved nutrition remain a challenge, and current trends suggest the continent is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger (SDG 2) by 2030.

Evidence suggests that one in five people faced hunger in Africa in 2020 – more than double the proportion of any other region. Several factors account for the prevalence of hunger and undernourishment on the continent, notably demographic changes, and rapid urbanisation.

The slowdown in the pace of economic growth, which started toward the end of the 2010s, is therefore cause for real concern and a threat to continued progress toward the Malabo agenda goals. Furthermore, economic shocks related to recurrent and more frequent weather extremes and the COVID-19 pandemic more recently, have increased the vulnerability of African food systems, triggering supply chain disruption, job losses, rising food prices, and reduced dietary diversity.

Connecting thematic areas of action

Drawing from seven studies across the thematic areas of nutrition,​ mechanisation, irrigation, digital agriculture, the energy-agriculture nexus, livestock and agriculture trade​,​ the report highlights how some African countries have achieved sustained progress, providing a practical guide to accelerate efforts toward ending hunger and transforming their food systems.

“Africa has made great strides over the decades, yet there is worrying evidence that the pace of progress had reduced significantly, even prior to the pandemic, due partly to stagnating public investment in agriculture, leading to slower economic and agricultural growth, and rising rates of poverty and hunger after two decades of steady decline,”​ said Dr Ousmane Badiane, AKADEMIYA2063 executive chairperson and Malabo Montpellier Panel co-chair.

“To reverse course and return to a trajectory of faster growth and improved living conditions requires continuity of effort and consistency of action across several policy areas.

“To be effective, policies would need to manage tradeoffs and leverage the synergies amongst major strategic outcomes including sustained and broad-based growth, ecosystem health, equity, and inclusivity, in the context of changing climates.

“This report provides practical evidence to do just that, drawing from proven lessons on the ground from best performing African countries in terms of progress toward ending hunger and transforming food systems.”

Launched against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) and COP26, the report is guided by key policy frameworks such as the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth, the Livestock Development Strategy for Africa (LIDESA), the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Nutrition must be a top priority

Though there has been remarkable progress in reducing extreme hunger in Africa over the past two decades, more needs to be done to achieve the Malabo Declaration targets of reducing the prevalence of stunting, wasting and underweight, while ensuring a minimum dietary diversity for women and meeting minimum standards for infant diets by 2025.

Evidence suggests good nutrition contributes to cognitive development and the realisation of lifelong economic potential, while poor nutrition impairs productivity, which impedes economic growth.

The cost of undernutrition to African economies averages 11% of gross domestic product (GDP) annually, while the economic returns from investing in nutrition are high: for every US$1 invested, US$16 is generated.

The report discusses case studies from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and Togo, indicating that, while interventions must be adapted to local contexts for meaningful impact, good practices across countries include breastfeeding, biofortification, social protection programmes and homestead gardens.

Sustainably reducing malnutrition requires the political will of governments to prioritise nutrition across all areas of public policy and collaboration with other stakeholders, particularly community organisations, the private sector and development partners. A sound holistic approach should tackle all forms of malnutrition and capture synergies between agriculture, water, health, sanitation, the threat of conflict and climate change.

Agriculture and women empowerment 

When adapted to local contexts, mechanisation along the agriculture value chain can increase farm incomes, improve livelihoods for smallholder farmers and create new employment opportunities, particularly for women, who continue to dominate the informal food processing and trading sectors.

While Africa has the least mechanised agricultural system, the report highlights an increase in new efforts toward sustainable agricultural mechanisation across the continent.

An analysis of the average annual machinery and agricultural output growth rates from 2005 to 2014 suggests Ethiopia, Mali, Rwanda and Zambia are leaders in increasing the uptake of mechanisation along the entire value chain, thereby boosting their agricultural output growth and generating new off-farm employment opportunities.

Critical success factors observed in the four countries include increased collaboration with the private sector; youth skill development and training; and support for emerging domestic agricultural machinery industries.

Other contributing factors recommended in the report include a broad vision for mechanisation, integrating agricultural mechanisation investment strategies into national agriculture investment plans, as well as raising investments in the development of supportive infrastructure and vocational training at scale.

Digital technologies

Information and communication (ICT) technologies offer a plethora of opportunities for agriculture value chain actors to make more informed decisions, reduce costs, increase productivity and incomes, and achieve improved nutrition and health outcomes. Furthermore, ICT can be instrumental in equipping governments to better understand the agricultural economy and enhance macro-decision policymaking.

Several countries across Africa demonstrate a relatively high degree of digitalisation in their economies, including in the agriculture sector, led by Côte d’Ivoire, Morocco, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal. Innovative solutions that emerge from the various approaches used by these countries include the enabling of a robust digitalisation environment with sound regulatory and fiscal regimes, implicating the private sector in designing, developing and disseminating smart technologies, and fostering an innovation ecosystem that encourages young people to develop locally adapted digital solutions and services.

Accelerating implementation

Since its inception five years ago, the Malabo Montpellier Panel has analysed policy-driven success stories in a range of strategic areas and identified programmes and practices, which, if brought to scale, could significantly accelerate progress toward African Union agenda goals, in particular, and UN SDGs, more generally, namely improving livelihoods, food and nutrition security, and advancing sustainable growth and transformation of Africa’s food systems.

“The policy innovation opportunities addressed in the report are cornerstones of a well-functioning food system. They form critical elements of strategies in the transformation of national food and agricultural systems,”​ said Prof Joachim von Braun, Malabo Montpellier Panel co-chair from the Center for Development Research, Bonn University in Germany.

“What we need is to accelerate the means of implementation toward sustainable, efficient food systems that deliver on the African Union Agenda 2063 and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Cross-cutting recommendations include the integration of food systems transformation into long-term national vision, growth and development agendas; elevating African science and technology priorities and creating research capacity for home-grown solutions; innovative policies and technical solutions that will support the transformation of food systems; coordination across government departments and non-state actors for increased policy cohesion; optimising conditions for sustainable growth through smart regulations; and stimulating holistic investment in infrastructure while creating conducive environments for private sector investments.

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