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Transforming Africa from a “continent of challenges” into a “continent of solutions”

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By Zitouni Ould-Dada

· 7 min read

Africa: a continent of challenges

The number of people facing hunger in Africa has increased by 11 million since 2021 and by more than 57 million since the outbreak of the pandemic. Three years later, while other continents appear to be recovering, Africa is still struggling. Nearly 20 percent of the African population is facing hunger, a much larger proportion than the rest of the world compared to 8.5 percent in Asia, 6.5 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 7 percent in Oceania. About 38 percent (282 million) of undernourished people in the world live in Africa and while this is expected to remain constant in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Africa it is projected to increase significantly with around 300 million people facing hunger in 2030. 

Another ongoing challenge is that 60 percent of Africa’s population lives in poverty with agriculture being the foundation of Africa's livelihoods and economies. Agriculture supports more than 55% of the labour force but it is also the sector most affected by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that Africa is warming faster than the rest of the world, at an increasingly challenging pace for countries and communities to keep up with. Because of climate change, the continent's agricultural productivity growth has declined by 34% since 1961, the highest compared to any other region of the world. Projected annual food imports by African countries are expected to increase by about a factor of three, from US$35 billion to US$110 billion, by 2025. 

The impact of climate change in Africa goes well beyond food insecurity. It includes the spread of infectious diseases, the loss of biodiversity, and the loss of human lives. In 2022, more than 110 million people on the continent were directly affected by climate and water-related hazards, causing more than US$8.5 billion in economic damages. According to the Emergency Event Database, there were around 5,000 deaths, of which 48% were associated with drought and 43% with flooding. Climate change is directly threatening Africa’s health, peace, and prosperity.

Africa: a continent of solutions

The African continent is blessed with vast wealth in the form of natural resources, minerals and renewable energy, factors that contribute to it sustaining 5 of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world. Africa is also the youngest continent with a population of 1.4 billion people, representing 17% of the world's population, almost 2/3 of which are under the age of 25. Therefore, it is very well positioned to be a global leader in addressing the climate crisis and providing food security, with the potential to improve the lives of its people and the world’s population at large. It has promising opportunities to transform its agrifood systems, invest in renewable energy, sustainably leverage its critical minerals and natural resources, and unleash the power of its vibrant young population. Over the past few decades, Africa has made significant progress in various sectors such as health, education and investment in infrastructure.

As the continent’s population continues to grow, expected to reach more than 2.5 billion people by 2050, ensuring food, water and energy security becomes more important than ever. Africa should address its current deficits in a synergistic and coordinated way to optimise water and energy use in agriculture, achieving multiple benefits and avoiding trade-offs through this. Following their recent collaboration, the FAO and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recommended the use of the water-energy-food nexus approach in implementing food and clean energy solutions for agrifood systems in Africa. Investing in clean energy to modernize agriculture practices would increase productivity by several orders of magnitude. For example, solar-powered, efficient micro-irrigation systems are increasing farm-level incomes by 5 to 10 times, improving yields by up to 300% and reducing water usage by up to 90% while offsetting carbon by generating clean energy.

Another great opportunity lies in improving Africa's trade in agricultural products within the continent. Nowadays, only 10 percent of its imports and 17 percent of its exports are intraregional. Increasing this number is critical to ensure sustained economic growth and for the exchange of technology and skills across the continent. This requires investments in improving infrastructure, transportation and logistics and in digital technology.

How can Africa get there?

Africa has a great opportunity to become food secure and build a resilient future for current and future generations. To help achieve this, Africa can adopt the RISE approach based on Reaffirm – Invest – Scale – Embrace as follows:

  • Reaffirm Africa’s leadership as in the case of the recent Africa Climate Summit hosted by H.E. President of Kenya William Samoei Ruto and the African Union. This summit marked a crucial step forward and a strong signal that climate action can be catalysed by Africa and for Africa. The Africa Food Systems Forum held in September in Dar Assalam also brought together stakeholders to take practical action and share lessons that will move African agrifood systems forward. These shared commitments and actions need to be reaffirmed to end hunger and poverty, combat climate change and inequalities, and build peaceful and resilient societies that leave no one behind.
  • Invest in transforming agrifood systems to make them more efficient, sustainable, inclusive and resilient. This requires investments in agricultural research, technological innovation and precision farming to optimize productivity and resource use such as water, energy and fertilisers. These investments should be adapted to local contexts to successfully increase productivity, sustainability, and resilience. For example, blending traditional knowledge with modern technologies can optimize productivity and reduce the environmental footprint. Investing in its human capital, particularly its youth and women, to provide them with the necessary skills and capacity, represents a unique opportunity for Africa.
  • Scale up investment in climate adaptation and build resilience in farming across the continent, building on achievements such as the FAO’s work on National Adaptation Plans (NAPs), Adaptation of African Agriculture, and the Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program. Adaptation finance represents less than 10 percent of all climate finance, but by scaling up investment in climate adaptation Africa would be able to become self-sufficient in food production and thus save the $50 billion it currently spends each year on importing food. The recent Africa Food Systems Forum 2023 concluded with calls to scale up existing solutions to accelerate agrifood systems transformation on the continent. Africa needs to expand its investments in renewable energy and hydrogen production, by building on ongoing efforts by countries such as Morocco, Egypt and South Africa. The current agricultural trade within the continent should also be improved as only 10 percent of its imports and 17 percent of its exports are intraregional.
  • Embrace ownership of shaping Africa’s own future and take its destiny into its own hands. This requires building partnerships among governments, businesses, philanthropies, civil society, farmers’ organizations, and research institutions which is key to framing Africa’s future towards healthy and prosperous agrifood systems. Significant advances should be made to increase women's participation and empowerment in decision-making for climate action and food security solutions. Commitments empowering young farmers through training, entrepreneurship, and digital technology, could allow Africa to tap into their potential for innovative, climate-sensitive agriculture. Governments must put their smallholder farmers, youth and women at the center of the agrifood systems’ transformation.

Achieving a sustainable and food-secure world is possible if we work together. Africa’s wealth points to a promising and bright future. We must, however, reverse Africa's current negative image of a “continent of challenges” into a positive “continent of solutions”. Going forward towards COP28 and beyond, African countries have multiple opportunities to showcase unity and collective political will in tackling the climate crisis and food security. It is time for Africa to RISE with pride and achieve its full potential to feed and nourish not just its people but the entire world's population.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Dr. Zitouni Ould-Dada is the Deputy Director of the Office of Climate Change, Biodiversity and Environment at the FAO. He has 26 years' experience working with the UN and the governments of the United Kingdom and France in high profile areas including climate change, food security, energy security, and sustainable development. He has been a member of many UN Task Forces established by the UN Secretary General including for climate change, food systems and SDGs. 

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