Unemployment remains a big challenge for African governments yet the continent is missing job opportunities offered by the region’s biggest employer, the agriculture sector.
For Africa, food security remains an elusive dream with projections showing that the continent is spending billions of dollars importing what it should be producing. The food import bill hit US$43 billion in 2019, according to Brookings.
The World Bank notes that in the last few decades, Africa’s food import bill has more than tripled, hitting about US$35 billion a year. The irony is that most of what is imported could be produced locally, which could create jobs that are much needed.
With job creation, millions of youth and smallholder farmers could benefit.
Another factor limiting job creation is the fact that African countries trade with each other on a limited scale. The World Bank says that with better regional food market integration, the food that is imported from other continents could be easily bought from other African countries in turn creating employment among neighbours.
While the food import bill is growing, Brookings notes that Africa can exploit the opportunity offered by the rapidly increasing demand for food through agricultural productivity growth and regional trade
The demand for food, especially high-value crops and livestock products, will continue to grow as Africa’s population grows and gets richer.
With the operationalisation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the rapidly rising demand for food within Africa could be an opportunity that could help grow the continent’s jobs.
The AfCFTA offers considerable untapped potential for intra-African trade.
Currently, the proportion of African countries with food imports originating from other African countries is low averaging about 20 per cent over the past several decades.
To reduce the dependence on countries outside Africa for food, AfDB President Akinwumi Adesina has repeatedly called for the improvement of the agricultural sector by acquiring new technologies which could transform agricultural production.
He adds that the technologies to achieve Africa’s green revolution exist but most of these are just sitting on the shelves due to the lack of supportive policies to ensure that they are scaled up.
Brookings notes that food imports into Africa could have tapered at a time when the continent’s exports are growing.
The institution says that while Sub–Saharan Africa (SSA) imports much more food today than it did two decades ago, the region is exporting much more too with exports hitting roughly US$35 billion per year over the past four years in comparison to the US$40 billion it is currently importing.
Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Kenya are some of the African countries which have become agricultural export powerhouses. These countries have a net agricultural trade surplus of more than US$5 billion per year each.
Countries in the SSA region mainly export tropical commodities like as cocoa, coffee, tea, and cotton. On the flip side, the region’s main food imports are frozen meat products, wheat, rice, soybeans and other oilseeds.
For Africa to create the jobs it desperately needs– especially in the agricultural value chains– countries in the SSA region will need to focus on improving agricultural productivity. In addition to increased productivity, these countries will be able to effectively compete against low-cost imports from the international market. Again, the countries have to invest in agricultural R&D and extension services. On top of these, the African states have to also reduce the costs of trade by removing tariff and non-tariff barriers especially to maximise the benefits of the AfCFTA.
The World Bank posits there is no single overarching reason for Africa’s growing food imports.
Among the key barriers to growth in this sector is underutilization of farm labour, shrinking farm size, and low output per hectare (low yields) which have all combined to keep smallholder output and earnings low. This means that despite the potential the sector has in creating opportunities, the disadvantages holding it back keep many jobless Africans at bay.
To address these challenges, governments have to do more than paying lip service to the sector that not only feeds but employs a majority of Africans.
The reliance on rain-fed agriculture, increasing population pressure and limited or uncertain access to technology, and more remunerative markets mean that African leaders will have to do more to ensure that the sector can fully satisfy the nutritional and employment needs of the continent.
According to the 2021 Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC 2021), Africa remained the continent most affected by food crises, accounting for 63 per cent of the global total number of people in crisis or worse.
Noteworthy is that in some countries, Covid-19 has turned pre-existing nutrition crises – driven by poverty, conflict, natural disasters and weather extremes – into nutrition disasters.
The report notes that strategies to reduce Covid-19 transmission upset the production, transport, access and availability of nutritious, fresh and affordable foods, and reduced incomes, forcing millions of vulnerable families to rely on processed foods and nutrient-poor staples.
Why investing in agriculture is important for the continent is because the sector, in general, contributes 35 per cent to the continent’s GDP employing 65 per cent of the population and generating 75 per cent of Africa’s internal trade.
The fact that the sector is critical cannot be emphasized enough. This is because more than 80 per cent of the rural population in the SSA region make their livelihoods from small-scale farming which in turn supports over 60 per cent of the region’s population.
Interestingly, agriculture remains the poorest and most seriously impacted by natural calamities and pandemics like Covid-19.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) notes that globally, SSA is the region most at risk of food insecurity and is largely dependent on food imports, especially cereals.
Poverty and hunger in SSA are still among the highest globally, and more than half of the global poor are in this region.
With such grim statistics, African governments should prioritise the sector if they are to chip the unemployment block which remains a ticking time bomb.