Five steps for transforming Africa’s food systems from the demand side

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Africa’s long-standing food crisis, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and, increasingly, by climate change, threatens to have dire consequences.

Up to 650 million Africans—50% of the continent’s population—lack economic or physical access to sufficient food to meet their minimum needs every day. In planning to transform the continent’s food systems, a shift in focus from supply to demand is necessary, according to a new report Transforming Africa’s Food Systems From The Demand Side from Boston Consulting Group (BCG). 

Agriculture accounts for a quarter of the continent’s GDP, and in sub-Saharan Africa it provides work for almost 60% of the population. The report recommends viewing the food economy as a system and taking a systematic approach to understanding and addressing its complex challenges. It also proposes five steps Africa’s policymakers can take to transform the continent’s food systems.

The world relies on sustainable agriculture, resilient supply chains, and the availability of healthy food. However, supply efforts too often focus on reasoning such as ‘if farmers grow it, consumers will buy it’ that doesn’t deliver sustainable results. Starting with demand is more likely to trigger the production of the right kinds of food by the right farmers for the right markets in an environmentally sustainable way.

For too long, most policy interventions on the continent have targeted the supply side of the food economy. It’s easy to see why: supply-side measures lead to economic policies, budgetary allocations, and aid flows that have an immediate impact on large numbers of rural people.

“Targeting supply hasn’t produced satisfactory solutions to many of the varied and interconnected challenges that Africa’s food system faces. We have been studying Africa’s food systems for over a decade, and our studies show that a shift in focus is essential,” says Chris Mitchell,  Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group, Nairobi.

In fact, the continent’s food supply may face a demand problem, with its current structure incapable of stimulating the crop selection, farm productivity, and infrastructure development necessary to achieve sustainable growth. Agriculture policy would deliver better results in Africa if it started by triggering demand differently, valuing consumers’ nutrition and health as much as it does farmers’ incomes.

Shifting the transformation focus from supply to demand

 Rebuilding food demand and distribution is an indirect process that calls for more-sophisticated policies and tax incentives, different infrastructure, and the involvement of businesses and consumers as well as farmers. It will require additional investments in increasing productivity, enabling policies for the private sector, and creating a suitable distribution infrastructure, such as cold chains, across the continent.

Even so, starting with demand is more likely to trigger the end-to-end changes that African agriculture needs.

“Focusing on demand will result in new roles for the actors in Africa’s food system. The private sector will have a bigger part to play in the future; as the most structurally scalable and sustainable part of the food system, it must grow rapidly to catalyse change,” says Zoë Karl-Waithaka, Partner at Boston Consulting Group, Nairobi.

The public sector will have to create the enabling environment for the transformation, investing in agricultural R&D and the infrastructure needed to move goods from farms to consumers and ports. Additionally, different regions and countries must step up their cooperation to ensure that they achieve the right outcomes across the continent.

Understanding the system of challenges

The food sector doesn’t work in a linear way, so ensuring a sufficient level of output alone can’t address all the economic, social, health, and environmental imbalances in Africa’s food system. Only a systemic approach can adequately address the system’s complex challenges, from rural poverty and water scarcity to rising global temperatures and declining biodiversity.

The report examines conceiving the food economy as a system consisting of five elements: economics, nutrition, society, environment, and—underlying all of these—policy. Using the systems lens to analyse Africa’s food problems reveals the numerous connections between the issues at stake.

For example, too many people work on the land because other kinds of employment opportunities are hard to find. Without a structural economic shift, countries’ agriculture sector will have to employ tens of millions of people—especially young people (below 25 years of age), who make up most of the population in Nigeria (63%), Kenya (60%), Tanzania (63%), Ghana (56%), and many other countries in the region.

Tackling the continent’s gender gap in agriculture should be another priority. In sub-Saharan Africa, half of all impoverished smallholder farmers are women. If they are economically empowered, their productivity and incomes will rise, and they will find the means to prevent malnutrition in their children. When viewed through the systems lens, the continent’s real problems and opportunities come into sharper focus.

 Five steps for transforming Africa’s food systems

The report provides five steps policymakers must take simultaneously to address these challenges from the demand side: growing industrial demand for agricultural produce, using food processing companies as change agents, diversifying the continent’s demand for food, creating a global market for grown-in-Africa agricultural products, and crafting demand-led agrarian policies.

For example, nearly 40% of the food grown in sub-Saharan Africa perishes before it reaches consumers. Food processing companies, more than any other entities, can influence what farmers grow and what consumers eat.

Unless the continent’s food system is transformed, countries will never be able to boost agricultural output and economic growth in a sustainable fashion.

Fortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing Africa to plan differently for the future, creating an opportunity to experiment with bold change initiatives. “Policy innovations can effectively mitigate the negative impact of the current crisis, bolster food security, and transform Africa’s agriculture in the long-term,” says Mitchell.

 


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