In the 21st century, the African continent now relies on the Global North for agricultural resources and products, including seeds, pesticides, and food, which it once used to supply in the past. This has raised questions about what caused this shift and whether it can ever be reversed or balanced. The persistent queries include: What brought about this change? When did it happen? Why did it occur?
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Africa now imports 85% of its food as a continent.
Professor Fadhel Kaboub, an economist from Denison University in the United States and the President of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, points out that Kenya’s total imports are currently around USD 25 billion (Ksh.3.7 trillion), while its exports amount to about USD 12 billion (Ksh.1.7 trillion). Notably, more than USD 1 billion (Ksh.149 billion) of these exports are related to tea, not staple food crops. Kenya also exports significant quantities of cut flowers to European consumers.
Professor Kaboub highlights that Ethiopia similarly exports a large quantity of cut flowers, yet it has 20 million people dependent on food aid from abroad. This imbalance doesn’t grant African nations economic stability or sovereignty; it’s one of the continent’s major economic deficiencies.
Professor Kaboub believes that Africa’s once-vibrant food production declined after a pivotal meeting in Rome during the 1950s, primarily orchestrated by the Global North.
“In colonial times, Africa used to serve as the world’s ‘breadbasket,’ with its abundant natural resources, fertile soil, and water sources. However, shortly after gaining independence, a meeting took place in Rome in 1955, focusing on reducing Africa’s dependence on food supply,” he explains.
This meeting led to discussions that ultimately resulted in the establishment of a bloc with a common agricultural policy in 1962 by the Global North. This bloc included countries like the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, Ukraine, and Russia, major food producers that heavily subsidized agriculture and food crops within their borders.
Historical records reveal that this move disadvantaged African farmers who had previously produced bulk commodities like wheat, corn, soybeans, and barley for export. They couldn’t compete with the cheaper products from the Global North.
As a result, many African farmers were forced to abandon food production, either migrating to urban areas for unskilled labor or shifting to cash crops for export. This shift led to problems, as producing for export required matching consumer tastes, often leading to the importation of genetically modified seeds and the use of powerful fertilizers and pesticides that degraded the soil.
Today, the African continent grapples with food security issues due to harsh weather conditions, climate change impacts, imported chemicals and fertilizers, and soil depletion.
However, Professor Kaboub believes that Africa can regain its agricultural prominence despite these challenges. It begins with implementing local, national, and regional agricultural policies that prioritize food sovereignty.
“The policies we currently follow are mostly imported from abroad to supplement European agricultural wealth,” he argues.
Investing in food sovereignty is not only an economic development solution but also a climate solution. It involves using native seeds, which require less water, and promoting resilient food systems that can restore soil quality.
Professor Kaboub challenges African governments and agricultural ministries to invest in water infrastructure and technology to manage unpredictable weather conditions effectively. This includes irrigation to make efficient use of available water resources, reducing waste and ensuring food security.
On October 16, 2023, World Food Day marked its 44th anniversary. The day was first observed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, in 1945. It took another 34 years before it gained recognition as a global holiday at the 20th FAO conference in November 1979.
World Food Day serves as a reminder of the importance of food security for all of humanity, emphasizing United Nations Development Goal number two, which aims to eradicate hunger by 2030. The day is instrumental in promoting the idea of feeding the world and eliminating poverty, especially in developing nations.
In 2023, the day focused on attainable farming practices, equitable food distribution, and the availability of nutritious food for everyone, with the theme being: ‘Water is Food. Water is Life. Leave no one behind.’