After holidays, a time to reflect on the state of food in Africa

As we gather in kitchens and dining rooms during this season of eating and charity, let us pause for a moment to review the state of food trade in Africa: how does cross-border commerce in key crops fare on a continent with pockets of harsh weather and unpredictable politics? How is the traffic in grains and tubers?

It’s clear that prices are high, following the February 2011 peak worldwide. The price of maize in Nairobi has tripled this year alone, while the price of a 50 kg bag of rice in Dakar has risen from $36 to $43.50. These spikes can be blamed partly on increased demand for food crops – including for biofuel production in Europe and the United States. They are also due to supply-side factors, such as higher energy prices which impact transportation and fertilizer costs, and weak harvests in large exporting countries.

But on a global scale there is no food shortage. In 2010, the world produced 2.2 billion tons of cereals, up from 820 million tons 50 years ago (a 268 percent increase). Over the same period, the world’s population has grown from three billion to seven billion people: an increase of 233 percent.

In Africa, food staple production is abundant in some areas even though the continent is a net importer of food. Mali grows enough excess sorghum to supply its neighbors, and Uganda, the bread basket of East Africa, makes regular shipments of maize to Kenya, Southern Sudan and Rwanda. The problem is that the surplus food does not always get to those in need. Often shipments of perishable goods are stopped at the border and excessive inspections frequently cause delays.

African countries imported $15.2 billion of cereals in 2008, but just 5 percent of this came from the region. Reducing barriers to trade could change this. It could encourage the sale of African-grown food within Africa itself, a practice that could benefit some of the world’s poorest populations. If trade costs were lower, African farmers would get higher returns for their produce without necessarily inflating consumer prices. With access to a bigger market, farmers could grow more food in some countries, which could help mitigate shortages in others. Increased regional trade could stabilize prices and boost food security.

Most of the barriers to this ideal are political. Elections can be won or lost on issues of food security, so leaders often want to protect farmers and their local food supplies. Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania, for example, often ban imports during good harvest years to ensure that their citizens buy first from local farmers. They then limit exports during periods of low yields to contain domestic prices. In Senegal, the Minister of Agriculture recently announced that ‘by 2012, Senegal will not import a single grain of rice.’ But self-reliance makes food more expensive. Retail prices of maize in Malawi and Zambia frequently exceed those of maize imported from South Africa, a more efficient producer, while Senegal currently imports cheap rice from Thailand. Self-sufficiency also results in much greater volatility in domestic prices than in world markets because the supply in any individual market will vary more than the supply in a larger, integrated, diversified one.

So, while we can imagine Santa flying from rooftop to rooftop in a magic sleigh, most food arrives by more earthly means – on boats, trucks or even bicycles that must cross borders. The cargo must be inspected and it must be tallied. What is important is that the process is efficient, so it doesn’t hold up the passage of food. Self-sufficiency should be weighed against the benefits of cheaper imports. A country that is a natural exporter should not hinder its comparative advantage with export bans. A country that tends to import should allow its domestic market to remain linked to the world market. Otherwise, it’s like fitting a fat man down a chimney; it’s amazing the presents get there at all!

By Ian Gillson & Julia Oliver


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