By Farai Mabeza
SUB-SAHARAN Africa’s food production deficit is growing rapidly with the region having recorded a massive 570 percent increase in its food import bill since 2001.
The bill shot up from US$7 billion in 2001 to over US$40 billion in 2015, according to Thomas Jayne, a professor of agriculture, food, and resource economics at Michigan State University in the United States.
Jayne is also the co-director of the Alliance for African Partnership.
He revealed this while addressing a Livelihoods and Food Security seminar at the University of Zimbabwe a fortnight ago.
The bulk of the region’s imports are made up of rice, maize and wheat.
Notwithstanding, intra sub-Saharan African trade grew from US$1 billion to US$10 billion during the same period.
Jayne attributed the rising imports to four near-term trends that will continue to influence Africa’s economies for the next decade.
These are rapid population growth, growing land scarcity and rising land prices; the migration of Africa’s rural youth into non-farm employment in record numbers and the rise in urban-based investor farmers.
These trends will provide opportunities as well as major challenges for African policymakers and will fundamentally alter the rural landscape.
“There is chronic under-spending on research and development. In addition, we need an extension system that communicates well with the farmers. There must be bi-directional learning between the agricultural research system and the farmers,” he said.
Retired professor and agricultural economist, Mandivamba Rukuni, told the Financial Gazette that the region’s weak manufacturing sector was failing to cater for rising urban populations, thus fueling the rising import bill.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, sub-Saharan Africa’s voracious appetite for imported agricultural goods is a direct result of the region’s robust growth in gross domestic product (GDP) and population.
The sub region’s GDP grew by 60 percent, while the middle class expanded by 90 percent between 2005 and 2015.
In 2014, total imports reached well over US$40 billion.
In comparison, India imported US$17,6 billion in agricultural products, despite having 300 million more people than sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa’s middle class is expected to grow by 90 percent by 2024, resulting in a 60 percent increase in food sales.
By 2100, an estimated 33 percent of the world’s population will be found in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond 2050 the region will be the only one in the world where the rural population will still be growing.
Agricultural imports from the US reached US$2,3 billion in 2014, representing a 20 percent increase over five years.
The US’ primary exports to the region were wheat, poultry, and a host of processed products.
Growth in intra-regional trade is being caused by increased integration. In 2015, major regional trading blocs — the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, the East African Community and the Southern Africa Development Community — launched a Tripartite Free Trade Area. 00
The US agriculture department noted that South Africa and Zimbabwe have been successful in marketing some of their prepared foods, dairy products, wine and beer, fruits and vegetables, and poultry to other sub-Saharan countries.
Thailand, India, Malaysia, and Indonesia have also become major exporters to the sub region. Together, these four countries account for more than 30 percent of all external agricultural exports to sub-Saharan Africa.
China’s agricultural exports to the region are primarily made up of processed vegetables and tea.
The European Union (EU) and Brazil are also significant exporters to the region, with shipments worth US$11,7 billion.
In 2014, the EU accounted for about a quarter of the region’s agricultural imports, dominated by consumer-oriented goods, including prepared foods (US$1,9 billion), dairy products (US$1,5 billion), wine and beer (US$1,0 billion), and poultry (US$800 million).
The EU’s top bulk commodity export to the region was wheat (US$1,3 billion). But its market share has slipped from about 50 percent in 2004 to just over 25 percent in 2014.
Brazil is also facing stiff competition in sub-Saharan Africa, as its sugar exports have had to compete with those from southeast Asia and its poultry exports have slowed down.
In 2014, South Africa imported US$5,9 billion worth of diversified agricultural products. Nigeria’s agricultural imports increased nearly twice as fast as South Africa’s (52 percent vs 27 percent), reaching US$5,8 billion over the five years leading to 2014.
In 2014, Kenya imported US$1,7 billion worth of agricultural products, including rice, wheat, palm oil, sugar, and several consumer-oriented products
Rukuni noted that imports into Zimbabwe were also driven by unique factors that have turned the once bread-basket of the region into an importer of food.
“In the case of Zimbabwe, the land reform programme disconnected agriculture from the manufacturing sector because it was the commercial farming sector that was mostly connected to the manufacturing sector.
“So what now needs to be done is that it doesn’t matter if it’s small or large farmers, there is need to connect these farmers to the manufacturing sector,” said Rukuni.
The country and most of the southern African region are coming out of a devastating El Nino-induced drought, which had further increased the importation of food.
Jayne said good policies would be key to reversing the food deficit in Africa.
Zambian-based Zimbabwean agricultural researcher, Antony Chapoto, said research institutions must remain independent and provide the correct data to policy-makers.
“If I am perceived to be partisan, then all my evidence, no matter how good it is, people don’t listen. So we need researchers not to be partisan. We need researchers to present evidence without favour or prejudice,” said Chapota.