Hopefully, the recent drought taught us something

Monday May 15 2017

By BITANGE NDEMO
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Africa is in a food crisis. That is not a secret. 

We often blame drought and other extreme weather conditions for it, but there are multiple other factors: farming practices, poor planning, population explosion, culture and political disruptions

It is no longer a secret that due to climatic changes, the world is about to face a future of food shortages. Water will be rare and we shall witness conflict and mass migration as a result. 

Warnings to this effect have been made at virtually every major conference, including the just concluded World Economic Forum in Durban. 

Policymakers understand that farmers need to focus less on rain-fed agriculture to mitigate against climate change, but this understanding has yielded little.

REFUGEE CRISIS

At least 80 per cent of the land mass in Kenya, for example, is either arid or semi-arid, so continued reliance on raid-fed agriculture is akin to committing suicide.

Conflict and migration are already a reality in much of Africa due to water shortage, especially with pastoralist communities. 

The conflict in Laikipia, which has resulted in loss of life, is due to persistent water shortages, politics and lack of grazing land. Without proper planning, the situation will most likely get worse during the next drought. 

In Somalia, food shortage will likely lead to a refugee crisis. Indeed, some of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean Sea are running away from countries that have not managed their food security well.   

FARMING PRACTICES

Much of Africa still relies on archaic farming methods, resulting in constant declines in yields of virtually every crop. Continued land sub-division has made it impossible to mechanise farming. 

Most countries suspended agricultural extension services, leaving decisions in agriculture to politicians. As a result, the yield improvement prescription has been fertiliser only, yet improving yield takes much more than that. 

Big data can now provide better predictions on timing, required soil supplements needed, hybrid seeds and continuous extension services to improve yields for essential crops like maize.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, South Africa produces four metric tons per hectare of maize, while Ethiopia manages two metric tons per hectare.

By comparison, the US yield stood at 11 tons per hectare. The yields in the rest of Africa are below the performance of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. 

Some of the yield models that help the US can be accessed free fromGro Intelligence, an agricultural research and data company located in New York and Nairobi.

Technology has changed farming across the world and feeding our growing population will be impossible without it. 

Several data sources, including the World Bank, estimate that by 2040, the world population will be nine billion and the bulk of it will live in Africa.

Within the past one month alone in Kenya, there has been no butter, sugar and maize meal. Maize is being imported from Mexico.

Technology will make it possible to increase productivity while minimising the amount of already scarce water required for sustainable agriculture. Once more, the application of Big Data has enabled greater understanding on greater productivity.

CONSUMPTION PATTERNS

The weakest link to Africa’s food security is poor planning. Data analytics have made it possible to predict many weather conditions but the continent has failed to leverage this resource. 

Data on consumption patterns should be readily available to the public so that the private sector can plan on meeting the demand. For now, it comes as a surprise when some commodities disappear from the shelves. 

Information asymmetry, where information is unevenly distributed, only helps cartels to take advantage of desperate situations. Some shortages are planned to occur strategically to benefit a few.

There is no reason, for example, why we should have a shortage of sugar if supermarkets understand consumption patterns and the production capacities of local manufacturers.

ARCHAIC CULTURAL METHODS

Culture is the least discussed cause of food insecurity but it greatly contributes to the food crisis in Africa. A culture devoid of proper consumption estimates means food waste is enormous. 

Panel discussants at the just concluded WEF event in Durban noted that despite sub-Saharan Africa having the highest share of its population undernourished at about 25 per cent, between 40 and 50 per cent of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted. 

Africa has refused to adopt to new storage technologies, preferring archaic cultural methods of food preservation instead.

The amount of food waste in real numbers is mind-boggling. Mamadou Biteye, managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Africa Regional Office said in a recent interview:

“Each year one-third of all food produced for human consumption—1.3 billion tons—is lost before it reaches retailers. Unfortunately, 40 per cent of the food that does reach retailers is never eaten up but thrown away. This is enough food to feed all the 1.2 billion hungry or undernourished people on the planet. It’s an unsustainable practice given that 2 billion more people are expected to live on the planet by 2050.”

Many of the expected two billion people will be in Africa. There will be less conflict in Africa if her people are fed and her young people employed.

This doesn’t come easy. Sacrifices must be made. Culture has to change. For instance, excessive land sub-division must stop to enable large-scale production of food.

ENABLING PREDICTIONS

We need an education programme to curb the explosive population growth. Educating teenage girls and giving them an opportunity to finish their schooling would do just that.

It must be compulsory for every citizen to complete high school. Perhaps this is less expensive than leaving them to their devices, to procreate without a plan.   

Perhaps this is why former US vice-president Al Gore once said:

“Population growth is straining the Earth's resources to the breaking point, and educating girls is the single most important factor in stabilising that. That, plus helping women gain political and economic power and safeguarding their reproductive rights.”

The food problem is bigger than the drought we blame it on. The many unresolved causes must be explored fully and dealt with. 

For a start we need to embrace Big Data, which is already enabling predictions. The drought we are experiencing was predicted almost a year ago but very little mitigation measures were put in place. 

The situation cannot change until we begin to take responsibility for our own actions. American farmer, lecturer and author Joel Salatin once said:

The average person is still under the aberrant delusion that food should be somebody else's responsibility until I'm ready to eat it.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School. Twitter: @bantigito