Addressing Food Insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges, Potential, and Lessons from Israel

As the adverse effects of climate change continue to skyrocket all over the world, coupled with the global shocks that been observed over the past 3 years due to the COVID-19 epidemic such as trade restrictions, rising food prices, economic instability, exacerbated by the Russia- Ukraine war, Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) has been feeling the heat and has been at the receiving end to say the least, as most African countries are battling with the severest drought ever experienced in 40 years especially the horn of Africa.

Simpson SimonBy Simpson Murangiri

As the adverse effects of climate change continue to skyrocket all over the world, coupled with the global shocks that been observed over the past 3 years due to the COVID-19 epidemic such as trade restrictions, rising food prices, economic instability, exacerbated by the Russia- Ukraine war, Sub Saharan Africa (SSA) has been feeling the heat and has been at the receiving end to say the least, as most African countries are battling with the severest drought ever experienced in 40 years especially the horn of Africa. Food insecurity has worsened, these shocks have been adding an even heavier burden to an already brink situation.

At least one in five Africans sleeps hungry, while an estimated 140 million people in Africa face acute food insecurity, according to 2022 global report on Food crisis mid-year update.

The two most critical 2030 sustainable development goals of the United Nations of eliminating hunger and achieving food security seems a far-fetched goal in SSA.

The big question is why is SSA unable to make progress in achieving food security, ending hunger, and promoting sustainable agriculture and improving nutrition despite receiving support from international organizations and what can be done to reverse this?

Having grown up in the rural area in Kenya, where smallholder farmers cultivate large tracts of land, and work hard every single day in the farms, it baffles me that the food insecurity situation is still deteriorating.

The concept of food security relies on four pillars; availability of food which addresses supply of food, accessibility, stability (absence of food shortage) and utilization which tackles the socio-economic and biological aspect. From this definition, it is clear the demand and supply of food is the drive to food security. Low crop productivity, weak economic growth and high inflation rates and food prices, inadequate investment in modern irrigation in agriculture, high population, poor policy frameworks, are some of the challenges hindering the ability of these countries being food secure.

Ban Ki moon once said that "Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth... these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women's empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all."

According to Global Hunger index (GHI), 2022, south of Sahara had the highest levels of hunger at 27.1, implying stagnation in the goal towards “zero hunger” by 2030.One-third of the world’s undernourished comes from Africa, which currently has a population of at least 1.4 billion according to the United nation and this explains how grave the matter of food insecurity is.

It is ironical that   agriculture is at the heart of most African countries, yet SSA has large tracts of uncultivated land, which is ideal for agriculture but majorly relies on food imports, meaning it has a lot of untapped agricultural potential. It is also evident that most of the countries are struggling with embracing modern agricultural techniques and irrigation and fully depends on rain -fed agriculture which is unsustainable and unpredictable due to the erratic rainfall, which is mostly below 700mm.

Further, a 2021 study by Jayne,, shows that SSA countries used USD 43 billion in imports, and this is estimated to increase, despite its ability to be food self – sufficient. This implies that there is an underperformance in the agricultural sector, and the agricultural production per capita has been declining for years, which can also be attributed to small scale production. This further increases costs per unit production, compared to Asia, which has seen slight improvement.

Increasing agricultural productivity would reduce unemployment levels, especially among the youth and provide income to small holder farmers.
It is evident that SSA has great potential to increase its crop yields by at least 50 percent and resilience against global warming and extreme climatic conditions by embracing irrigation. Only 6 percent of land in SSA is irrigated, compared to 37 percent in Asia and 14 percent in Latin America.

SSA is at the highest risk and susceptible to climate change, despite its low contribution to it, due to its inability to use technological capability to adapt to the rising temperatures, and total dependence on rainfall for agriculture.

Closer home, the Kenyan food security situation is no different. Recent studies show that food security status of young populations is positively influenced by age, suggesting that younger youths are less food secure compared to older ones.

In Kenya, even with the currently introduced agricultural policies, in particular extension services, irrigation investments, rural infrastructure and input subsidies developed with an objective of growing productivity and increasing farmers' income, the results are yet to be noticed. Agricultural produce remains low and not able to meet the population demand. The market for farm produce also remains a challenge while the cost of living continues to skyrocket with no positive change in the livelihoods of the farmers.

In addition, the climate has changed and is already having implications on food security. Semi-arid regions are inherently dynamic, with high degrees of interannual and spatial variability, but increased uncertainty and variability amplifying the vulnerabilities of existing farming systems.

Recent studies by the Ipsos Africa Centre for Development Research and Evaluation (ACDRE) on Multi Criteria Spatial Analysis of the Forest Landscape Restoration showed that changes in the environment and in particular the reduction in soil fertility has serious consequences on the welfare of the populations located in these landscapes. Reduction in productivity due to infertile soils and/or an increase in expenditures due to having to buy chemical inputs, both seriously reduce household incomes. These are among some of the top issues cited by farmers, and we can assume that this could also lead to food insecurity in some cases.

Further, the findings indicated that the high prices of agricultural inputs and attacks by pests and diseases were a big problem to the households, as well as lack of access to loans for inputs while farming is by far the leading source of income across the landscapes and amongst both women and men.
That said, what can SSA learn from Israel, whose two -thirds of its land is semi-arid and poor-quality soil, yet despite all odds, this small country has managed to transform its agricultural sector and emerged a global leader in water management and agricultural export?

According to Prof. Joachim Von Braun, Director of Center for Dent Research at Bonn University, Germany “three things need to come together in smart irrigation: first, robust technology that saves water and energy and can be sustained locally. Secondly, good governance and policies towards long -term commitment to improving irrigation and agriculture by the governments, and improving agricultural extension services to farmers, access to credit, supplying drought resistant improved crops and fertilizers would go a long way in ensuring food self-sufficiency. Finally, market reforms should also be revised to increase the bargaining and purchasing power of farmers, and reduction of trade barriers to ensure market efficiency”.

In my opinion, SSA can be better. Whilst the region can explore learnings from Israel and other nations, it has actual work to do, and a lot of it.

Better quality, timely, and site-specific scientific weather forecasts could help bolster local knowledge systems and adaptation practices.

The government should support continuous climate change monitoring, intensify early warning systems, and the dissemination of relevant information to farmers.

More efforts should be directed towards improving the food security of young African farmers and policy- and programme-level interventions should be supported to access extension services, market information, and land.

Additionally, more investments should be directed towards developing need-based agribusiness incubation programmes with an effort to scaling existing programmes beyond the regular one-time period.

A framework of policies should be formulated and implemented to introduce stability in agricultural output, to commercialize and intensify production, and to promote appropriate and participatory policy formulation and environmental sustainability.

Largely, it is evident that food insecurity in SSA is multidimensional, a deep-rooted problem, that requires a holistic approach and a gateway to sustainable food security would require several approaches, i.e. investment in rural infrastructure and irrigation, research and innovation in agriculture, structural reforms, good governance, and agricultural policies.

***The author is Senior Researcher with the Africa Centre for Development Research and Evaluation at Ipsos in Kenya.

Notes to the editor: The Ipsos Africa Centre for Development Research and Evaluation provides insights for evidence-informed programs and policies; evaluation of programs, policies, and communications; and understanding of perceptions on a range of issues. The centre works with governments, donors, international NGOs, academic institutions, and multilateral organizations to help them achieve their project goals and performance targets and helps them make informed decisions by providing insights into public policies. Its work spreads across multiple sectors, including politics, governance, health, finance, livelihoods, and media.