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Farmers working in their field in northern TanzaniaCredit: Boaz Rottem/Alamy Stock Photo

Feeding Africa’s rapidly growing population, including the 250 million who endure food insecurity, and dealing with the impacts of severe droughts, flooding, and COVID-19, are the priorities of governments on the continent.

Between 2000 and 2018, Sub-Saharan Africa recorded the fastest agricultural production growth, rising by 4.3% yearly above the world average of 2.7%. However, a World Bank study shows that while agricultural production increases in regions such as Asia have been associated with intensive use of inputs and improved production technologies, Africa’s production was largely driven by expansion of farmland. The study’s authors warned that such “expansion cannot be sustained indefinitely, even with Africa’s relative land abundance.”

The study also reveals that while agricultural productivity has grown, the continent “has not delivered the development dividends needed to significantly reduce poverty in rural areas across Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Researchers and speakers at the last month's UN Food Systems Summit and the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) Summit, in Nairobi, outlined unsustainable food systems in Africa. Africa Agriculture Status report released in September during AGRF warns that this expansion of cropland makes Africa’s food systems fragile, threatens biodiversity and increases the continent’s risk of climate change impacts .

Currently postharvest losses cost Africa food worth US$48 billion each annually. This, according to Richard Munang, Africa Regional Climate Change Coordinator at the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) implies that water, soil and pollination resources in producing this food goes to waste – necessitating further expansion of land under crop to cover for deficits.

Jemimah Njuki, the director for Africa at the International Food Policy Research Institute said climate change and poor technology adoption remains a key challenge to food systems transformation and sustainability. According to the State of the Global Climate 2021 report food insecurity increases by 5 to 20% with each flood or drought in sub-Saharan Africa. It highlights a 40% increase in population affected by food insecurity in 2020 compared with 2019 in the region.

According to the World Bank research, Sub-Saharan Africa spends a paltry 0.4 percent of GDP on agricultural research which is below the 1% threshold set under the Malabo declaration on accelerated agricultural growth and transformation. To improve yields Njuki, called for increased access to and use of climate smart technologies, irrigation, mechanization and judicious use of improved farm inputs, ensuring they are accessible to smallholder farmers and women.

Brian Mulenga, senior research fellow from Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, Zambia explained the need “to invest in drivers of productivity growth such as extension and education, climate resilience of smallholder farmers, diversification at the farm level, and creating market linkages for crops and livestock.”

“One way in which to improve sustainability is to support the transition toward agro-ecological food systems. Fast-tracking climate smart agriculture offers the combined benefits of environmental sustainability, reducing production risks, and the ability to achieve the same or greater productivity with reduced industrial inputs, and therefore lowering input costs,” Julian May, director of the Centre of Excellence in Food Security at South Africa’s University of Western Cape and the UNESCO Chair in African Food Systems told Nature Africa

Mulenga advocated for a futuristic approach where country level evidence is utilized to “create strategic regional evidence generation and sharing alliances among researchers and development organizations to have a critical mass of evidence pointing in the same direction across regions.” He argues that this makes policy makers to appreciate the evidence and respond, “as it will be clear that the evidence is supported beyond their country's border.”