Conflict food? UN Declares African Year of Agriculture

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Written by D.A. Barber

As drought and armed conflict push farmers off their land, the UN is boosting efforts to bring food and agriculture relief to sub-Saharan Africa.

When the 22nd African Union Summit ended Jan. 31 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, key decisions were adopted based on the theme of  agriculture and food security.

It was there that the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General, José Graziano da Silva, launched the 2014 African Year of Agriculture and Food Security and announced the UN’s commitment to end hunger in Africa by 2025.

“The launch of the African Year of Agriculture and Food Security is an important step towards a hunger-free and sustainable Africa that Nelson Mandela and many others have dreamed of and fought for,” Graziano da Silva told the summit. “Africa is witnessing economic growth of unprecedented proportions, but it is also the only continent in the world where the total number of hungry people has gone up since 1990.”

Eleven countries in Africa have been able to significantly reduce undernourishment in their populations, thus achieving the hunger targets agreed upon either at the 1996 World Food Summit or in the Millennium Declaration in 2000, said James F. Tefft, senior policy officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization in Ghana, in an AFKInsider interview.

Those 11 African countries include Algeria, Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ghana, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Togo. They’ve met the first Millennium Development Goal to reduce by half the proportion of hungry people between 1990 and 2015. The new 2025 African Union target aligns the continent with the Zero Hunger Challenge launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012. Three countries — Djibouti, Ghana, and Sao Tome and Principe — have actually met the more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit goal to reduce by half the total number of hungry.

“These achievements demonstrate that political will and commitment by governments and people throughout the world make it possible to defeat hunger and malnutrition,”  Tefft said. “Our improved understanding of the determinants of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition makes us confident that it is possible to improve food security and nutrition in a sustainable manner, provided proper actions are taken immediately.”

This year’s African Union summit also marked the 10th anniversary of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, or CAADP. In 2003, AU member states signed off on the CAADP with hopes of revitalizing agriculture, food security and nutrition. The aim is to help African countries achieve economic growth through agriculture-led development and it is under this program that African governments committed to allocating at least 10 percent of their national budgets to the agricultural each year. As of the end of 2013, more than 20 African countries have signed on to this goal.

Investing 10 percent of national budgets to the agricultural sector makes sense and is is “absolutely achievable,” Tefft said. “Channeling financial resources…to the agricultural sector is a sound investment in broad-based economic growth with benefits rural and urban households.” Since 2003, 13 countries — some with limited domestic resources — have managed to spend 10 percent of public budget to the agricultural sector at least once since 2003. “This 10 percent level remains a key point of reference to measure the commitment to a productive agriculture economy and necessary condition to improved food security,” Tefft said.

The European Union also announced on Feb. 4 that it has allocated $431 million through UNICEF to improve the health and nutrition of children and women in 15 developing countries and to help speed progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals.

But the future agricultural development is being threatened by continued droughts and disrupting conflicts.

Angola and Namibia Droughts

In the midst of one of the worst droughts in 30 years, Angola and Namibia are seeing the threat of hunger, malnutrition, disease and lost farming livelihoods amplified. This is particularly devastating for Namibia where more than 70 percent of the population depends on subsistence farming.

In 2013, the Agricultural Bank of Namibia set aside $9.1 million for loans to drought-stricken farmers, and earlier this year the government declared a state of emergency and pledged $20.1 million for drought relief.

“Climate change and environmental pressure are making life increasingly difficult for the poorest and most marginalized in remote communities, where daily life is already very challenging for children,” said Steven Allen for UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa in a written statement.Food and water shortages now increase the likelihood of disease and malnutrition.”

UNICEF estimated in August that nearly 780,000 people — more than a third of Namibians and 65 percent of people living in the most affected regions — are being impacted by the drought. And that number expected to increase. Families migrating to find better livestock grazing land has also led to high rates of student dropout and school closures. An estimated 41 percent of schools are without water.

“We know that drought and extreme weather events caused by climate change make it difficult for many farm households to productively produce food to feed their families and make a living,” Tefft said. “However, we see a growing number of successful experiences throughout Africa in which public and private actors have worked in partnership to develop innovative solutions to the agricultural challenges in arid or semi-arid environments.”

Meanwhile, Angola’s reduced rainfall has resulted in a drop in groundwater tables and many rivers drying out.

UNICEF is seeking international support for those affected to avert a nutritional and health crisis in both countries, appealing for $7.4 million to fund its response in Namibia and $14.3 million for Angola to respond in the worst-affected provinces including Cunene, Namibe and Kuando Kubango. This is in addition to appeals by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for $1.4 million.

But by many accounts a significant funding gap remains and there have been allegations that some relief is being mismanaged, with relief food going missing or being sold.

Although the emergency is in its early stages, the situation is expected to worsen as livestock and crops perish and many farming households sell their assets.

The Conflict Food Connection

In the wake of the ceasefire signed by South Sudan’s warring parties in late January, FAO and UNICEF are warning of a food crisis is unfolding since few humanitarian agencies have been able to gain access to the displaced population who fled the fighting. UNICEF estimates that more than half a million people have fled their homes. Nearly 70,000 are sheltering in UN protection at civilian centers in South Sudan while 86,000 have fled to bordering countries — mostly women and children.

“In countries experiencing protracted crises, FAO and UNICEF have collaborated extensively in delivering joint programs to vulnerable and at-risk households,” Tefft said.

FAO warned on Feb. 5 of a major food and nutrition crisis in South Sudan, where some 3.7 million people are now facing emergency levels of food insecurity.  That’s because displacement has severely disrupted the agricultural cycle, and infrastructure is damaged, foreign traders have left, supply corridors have been disrupted, and rural populations are unable to bring their crops, livestock and fish to market. This severe food insecurity will be further exacerbated if farmers miss the main March planting season, according to Dominique Burgeon, director of FAO’s Emergency and Rehabilitation Division.

FAO is attempting to help 545,000 households by providing emergency support in the worst affected areas in South Sudan while protecting food production in the less-affected areas. This includes distributing food crop seeds and basic tools, fishing kits, and animal health worker kits.

FAO also warned on Feb. 12 that food reserves in the Central African Republic are almost exhausted due to low crop production in 2013 after civil conflict broke out in December 2012. More than a third of the population – 1.6 million people — already need food assistance; one in five have fled their homes in fear of continuing violence. According to FAO, farmers in the region are in urgent need of seeds and essential tools for the March planting season if they are to help avert a full-scale food and nutrition crisis in the country.  To this end, FAO has begun distributing seeds and tools to displaced people in camps on the outskirts of Bangui so that they can plant vegetables, which they will be able to harvest in six to eight weeks.

Agricultural Youth Priorities

Noting that most of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, the FAO stressed at the African Union Summit that the region had the power to change the food situation.

The hope is the continent can fully exploit its potential to increase food and agricultural productivity through the modernization of rural infrastructure and efficient, sustainable farming techniques.

According to a World Bank 2013 estimate, Africa’s food market is expected to reach $1 trillion by 2030.

The challenge for Africa is to make this economic growth more inclusive by targeting agricultural and rural development by young people. Some 75 percent of Africans are 25 years old and under, and the population is expected to remain largely rural for the next 35 years, with women heading up many households. According to FAO’s Tefft, the average age of an African farmer is 50 to 60, but more than half of the population today is less than 25 years old. The trend is likely to continue at least for the next decade.

“Agriculture is the only sector of the economy capable of absorbing this workforce,” the FAO Director-General told the African Summit. “There is no inclusive and sustainable way forward for Africa without women, youth and agriculture.”

But is there interest among young people to get involved in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa?

According to FAO’s Tefft, youth are interested in quick-yielding and high-value agricultural crops or employment opportunities in processing or marketing that can provide them a relatively constant and stable income.

But says Tefft, in general “there is a trend of declining interest among youth in working in the agriculture sector.”

“However, even when they are interested they are challenged in investing in agriculture given the barriers to entry — primarily access to land and (lack of) financ(ing),” Tefft said.

There is a growing divide between the aspirations of youth and the attitude towards being a farmer, Tefft said, and if agriculture is to be attractive to young people, improving the productivity and profitability of small-to-medium scale farms or enterprises is a must.

FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva lauded the expansion of a Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity gardening project for young Africans on Feb. 17, saying it was part of a much-needed paradigm shift to place more importance on family farming, sustainable agriculture systems, and the transfer of traditional knowledge to the next generation. Italy-based Slow Food Foundation plans to help African youths plant 10,000 food gardens.

“If this young generation is not interested in agriculture, who will produce the food?” Tefft said. “The question then is how can we make agriculture more interesting for youth rather than whether youth are interested in agriculture?”