Africa Hunger Crisis
Bernadette Milambo (L) stands beside her family farm outside the village of Chikonga, close to the town of Chikuni in southern Zambia on April 18, 2012. Reuters

A solution to one of Africa’s most critical problems could be much closer to home than previously imagined, according to a new report.

Food insecurity in African countries is an issue often considered through the lens of outside assistance: funds and development aid from richer continents overseas. But a Wednesday report from the World Bank finds that African farmers could be fully capable of feeding the continent -- if only restrictions on cross-border trade were eased.

The report, “Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing Barriers to Regional Trade in Food Staples,” argues that too many countries in Africa rely on imports from other continents, which leads to high food prices and does nothing to increase production on the continent.

Regional trade would be much more profitable -- and productive.

“This potential, however, has yet to be exploited because African farmers face more trade barriers in accessing the inputs they need, and more trade constraints in getting their food to consumers in African cities, than do suppliers from the rest of the world,” says the report.

Easing the barriers to intra-continental imports and exports could be an enormous boon to Africa’s agricultural production.

Empty Bowls

Today, food shortages in Africa present a monumental challenge. Famine conditions wrought havoc in and around the Horn of Africa in 2010 and 2011; tens of thousands died, and widespread hunger remains a serious problem. Across the semi-arid belt of the Sahel, drought conditions are worsening already-critical food shortages.

Throughout the entire continent, reports the U.N., one in four Africans are undernourished -- that's almost 218 million people. Children under five are faring especially poorly, with about 40 percent undernourished.

These problems are only exacerbated by national policies that take a narrow view of food security. Individual countries’ protectionist limits on agricultural trade often fail to take the broad dynamics of food insecurity into account, and are detrimental to everyone in the long run.

“Common problems include: export and import bans; variable import tariffs and quotas; restrictive rules of origin; price controls; government tenders for the import of crops and flour that are then sold at subsidized prices,” explains the report.

“Countries ban imports during good harvest years to ensure domestic production is consumed first, and limit exports during periods of low yields.”

More cooperation is key so that the disparate policies of African nations no longer place unnecessary limits on the productivity of the continent.

Unreasonable Imbalances

Current import patterns show that there is much to be addressed. Grains, or cereals, are a principal source of nutrients across much of Africa. But incredibly, only 5 percent of the African countries’ total imported grains come from other countries on the continent. The remaining 95 percent are shipped from overseas, which complicates logistics and raises costs.

This is despite the fact that Africa has huge swathes of arable land, much of which is uncultivated.

In the Guinea Savannah zone, a curved swath of grasslands that stretches across 25 countries, there are 400 million hectares of arable land. Only 10 percent of that is currently used for farming -- and even those farms are far less productive than they could be.

To make them more productive, better tools, seeds and fertilizers could be introduced. This is a clear case of how the international sharing of resources can facilitate agricultural progress.

“Outdated regulations limit access to the best seeds, raise the price of fertilizers and prevent agricultural specialists from crossing borders to share their knowledge where it is most needed,” explains the report. “Lack of competition often ensures high transport costs and poor services; export bans, unnecessary permits and licenses, costly documentary requirements hit poor small farmers and traders.”

As farms become more productive and more profitable, they can also become more efficient and expand to make use of more available land -- a virtuous cycle with immense potential. In this way, African countries’ efforts to break down barriers could encourage cooperation and market competition that ultimately saves millions of lives.

Weather or Not

But what about those food insecurity problems that don’t have regional causes? Global climate change, for instance, has a major impact on production but is widely presumed to be the result of unsustainable energy consumption practices in highly industrialized countries like the United States and China.

Africa has warmed by approximately one degree Fahrenheit over the last century -- faster than the global average -- and could rise another six degrees by the end of this century, according to estimates from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

This could have devastating effects on food security in Africa, especially as population growth and urbanization push an exponential growth in food demand, which is already expected to double by 2020.

But climate change does not affect all regions of Africa in the same way: it can cause droughts in Somalia, for instance, even as it causes floods in Mozambique.

And therein lies the opportunity for intra-continental trade to alleviate this problem, at least in the short and medium term: If border regulations are eased, regional weather patterns’ impact on food security can be mitigated by cooperation.

In other words, food insecurities caused by regional weather patterns -- like the devastating famine of recent years that followed drought in the Horn of Africa -- could be more easily addressed by importing food from regions like Central Africa, where rainfall has been consistent.

Tanzania is a telling case study. There, rainfall deficits tend to occur while its trading partners in Africa are experiencing higher precipitation.

“Diverse destinations for exports can allow for enhanced trading opportunities when negative supply shocks affect the partners' usual import sources,” explained a World Bank policy paper this July.

“Future climate predictions suggest that some of Tanzania's trading partners will experience severe dry conditions that may reduce agricultural production in years when Tanzania is only mildly affected. Tanzania could thus export grain to countries as climate change increases the likelihood of severe precipitation deficits in other countries while simultaneously decreasing the likelihood of severe precipitation deficits in Tanzania.”

Getting There

Implementing the necessary trade regulation changes is no easy task. It would involve sustained communication and cooperation between countries of varying political stripes.

It will also involve intra-national efforts -- opening up the lines of communication between central governments, municipal administrations and border officials, for instance.

Even simple infrastructural changes, like building roads to help farmers get their produce to market, will be necessary to effect real change in many underdeveloped countries.

“Obviously, political realities mean that moving to open regional food markets cannot all be done at once -- so the challenge is to design a process -- a series of steps -- by which the government provides clear signals regarding the policy environment for food trade which gives the private sector sufficient confidence to make additional investments which in turn allows the government to take further steps to reduce interference in trade and agricultural production and so on,” says the report.

But every endeavor has to start somewhere. Policy-makers in Africa are expected to discuss this report beginning Monday, during a joint ministerial conference of agriculture and trade in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which will address the theme: “Boosting intra-African Trade: A key to agricultural transformation and ensuring food and nutrition security.”