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Best Ways to Building Sustainable Food Systems

Developing resilient and sustainable food systems is crucial for building sustainable economies and livelihoods everywhere. The AASR21 explores what this would entail in Africa and calls for the necessary actions from national governments, pan-African organisations, bilateral and multilateral development partners, and the private sector. The report builds on the call to action from African governments to the UNFSS recognizing that we are in the last decade of global efforts to realise the SDGs. This concluding chapter highlights key actions for African Governments, pan-African institutions, bilateral, multilateral development partners, and the private sector to support a decade of action in building resilient and sustainable food systems in Africa.

The challenges to sustainability and resilience of African food systems are discussed in detail in previous chapters of this report. Among the most pressing are:

• Increasing prevalence of shocks from diseases, climate change, extreme weather events, conflict, policy instability, and domestic and international economic instability affecting trade and financial flows and the living standards affected by these.

• Low crop yield per hectare and per person, and slow improvements over the past decade. The pace of technological innovations that drive factor productivity growth and value addition along agricultural value chains remains slow in Africa compared to other regions of the world.

• Agricultural output growth through land use extensification leading to a degraded natural environment in rural areas and making the agriculture, forestry, and land use sector the largest contributor to green-house gas emissions in Africa (IPCC-Ar5).

• Food processing, packaging, distribution/ logistics, and agricultural market and regional market integration in Africa leaves significant opportunities for improvement. Despite possessing over 60 percent of the earth’s remaining potentially available cropland, African countries rely heavily on food imports to feed their citizens.

• Employment in food systems that features jobs that are mostly below or not far above the poverty line leaving millions of African hungry and highly vulnerable to shocks and stressors.

Having a resilient and sustainable food system can make the difference between life and death for millions of Africans.

Sustainable food systems require sustainable actions throughout the entire agricultural value chain - from input supplies, mechanization, irrigation, extension, transport, processing, distribution, and healthy consumption. Building and sustaining the system calls for significant investments in the requisite hard and soft infrastructures – agricultural R&D; education and extension; development of input supply chains; on-farm productivity increases; upgrading of agricultural product processing, distribution and logistics, and marketing to increase access to safe and nutritious food; and increased waste recycling from farm to table. Such a food system requires efficient markets that drive private sector investment and technical innovation at various stages of the upstream and downstream food systems.

Africa has developed several plans to foster agricultural productivity at the national, regional, and continental levels. CAADP, the Malabo Declaration, AU Agenda 2063, and the African Development Bank’ Feed Africa Strategy are among pan-African initiatives that provide continental frameworks for the region’s agricultural and regional development. While these provide sound frameworks for agricultural transformation in Africa, more concerted and sustained actions are required to implement them at scales that can achieve resilient and sustainable agricultural food system development in Africa. For example, under CAADP, African governments pledged to commit 10 percent of their respective national budgets to agriculture. However, only a few countries have fulfilled this pledge. Investments in agricultural research, technology development, education and extension services remain among the lowest compared to other continents. Consequently, value addition post farm in Africa is low by international standards.

The report is a call for urgent action directed first and foremost to African governments to take responsibility for the development of sustainable and resilient food systems at the community, national, regional, and continental levels. However, the call to action is also directed at the countries and international institutions and organizations which support African development but with a call to increase focus on empowering African countries to develop their own capacities. This means following Africa’s lead and the countries’ own development priorities. It also means bearing with African state capacity deficits while supporting Africans themselves to innovate, adapt, and develop their own institutions and functional forms. This call to action is encapsulated in the actionable policy recommendations in each chapter, some of which are highlighted below:

Priorities for African government action plans

1. Prioritize investments in agri-food systems as a national security, poverty alleviation, and rural development agenda. There is no more effective way to defeat a nation than to starve its citizens to death. This is what the current hunger pandemic is doing to millions of Africans year on year. Conversely, there is no better way to grow Africa’s economies than through investing in its AFSs. A productive, resilient, and sustainable AFS in Africa will directly translate to increased labor productivity, lower health costs through reduced morbidity and mortality due to hunger- and malnutritionrelated illnesses, and increased incomes for

the over 65 percent of Africa’s population directly employed in AFSs. Investing in agrifood systems is investing in the health and productivity of a country.

2. Demonstrate political commitment for government support to agriculture by honoring commitments such as the Maputo Declaration to increase annual national budgetary allocations for agriculture to at least 10 percent.Moreover, ensure that agricultural research, development and extension systems receive a significant share of total public expenditures on agriculture given their centrality to raising agricultural productivity. Weak knowledge systems and capacity (individual, organizational, and institutional) are the key underlying drivers of African countries’ challenges in their efforts to build resilient and sustainable food systems. Available evidence shows that investment in technical innovation driven by R&D&E is the key driver of agricultural productivity growth. Yet, most African governments invest less than

1 percent of agricultural GDP on agricultural R&D. While the scientific underpinning of agricultural science is the same globally, the evolution of agricultural science and technology development, diffusion, and adoption are always shaped by social, cultural, and environmental factors which are heterogenous across agroecological zones, countries, and continents. Low rates of adoption of agricultural technologies in Africa to date attest to the importance of integrating local knowledge in AFS R&D, education, and extension services. Greater public spending on national agricultural science, technology, innovations, education, and extension are necessary for building resilient and sustainable food systems in Africa. Increased funding for agricultural R&D&E must also be accompanied by increased accountability and management to ensure that the full impacts of these investments are realized.

3. Commit to national agricultural action plans that lay out the specifics of how countries will transition from area expansion to productivity growth on existing farmland as the primary source of future agricultural production growth. A key task is to prioritize farm productivity growth through strengthened national agricultural R&D&E systems, which entails increased funding for national agricultural R&D&E, support for more efficient use of funds, and stronger accountability frameworks to incentivize management of these organizations to achieve performance targets. Improved coordination between international CGAIR research systems and national R&D&E will also be important for achieving more resilient and sustainable food systems in Africa.

4. African governments need to take charge of their destinies by not relying on international partners to fund and influence how agricultural R&D&E and other farmer advisory services are undertaken. Governments can take control and build resilience, sustainability, community empowerment, and inclusiveness principles into the performance measures of national agricultural institutions and international research partners working in African countries. Modern science and agroecology principles can be combined to promote food systems resilience and sustainability. It is “both”, not “either/or” and ultimately it is the responsibility of African governments to take charge of the agendas and mold the programs of international development partners to align with national agendas. Governments can and should determine how to ensure that smallholder farmers have adequate choice over the seeds they use and that intellectual property rights are fair to both the firms generating new technologies and the farmers and local communities applying these technologies. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgent need for Africa and other regions to build and upscale endogenous knowledge and capacities to feed their citizens.

5. If and when African governments make progress in achieving productivity growth on existing farmland, a greater area of forests and grasslands can then be preserved through reserves and conservation areas to generate sustainable revenue streams for African citizens and national governments through developing ecosystem services.

6. Enact the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to expand the market for African farmers and create new incentives for the private sector to invest in African food systems. This should be accompanied by government investments in transportation and communications infrastructure to lower the cost of food trade between African countries.

7. Promote enabling business environments that facilitate public-private partnerships. For AFSs to be resilient and sustainable, significant investments are required from both public and private sectors. Governments need to move beyond

treating agriculture as a social sector to treating it as a bankable business. A key role of the government is to enact and implement policies that encourage private investment, innovation, and competition in Africa’s AFSs – recognizing that both informal small firms and large agribusiness firms are needed for a sustainable and resilient AFS. Smallholder farmers and consumers still rely greatly on the informal parts of African food systems. Regulatory barriers that hinder private sector access to land, finance, inputs, and other requirements for establishing, building and nurturing agri-businesses need to be identified and revised or eliminated. Governments are encouraged to create incentives for private sector participation and remove relevant tariff and non-tariff barriers. To promote access to financing and inputs, policy reforms on land ownership, land-use, and fiscal, monetary, trade, and competitiveness as well as private sector regulation are needed.

8. Invest in digitalization of African agri-food systems. Digitalization offers opportunities for efficiency and productivity gains all through agricultural value chains. It makes food systems more effective, efficient, transparent, traceable, and sustainable. Digitalization reduces transaction costs and allows for vertical and horizontal integration of input sources, on-farm production systems, and off-farm activities including distribution logistics, agri-business marketing and finance, smart contracting, and waste recycling. It also offers opportunities for product tracing and intellectual property management. African governments need to take the lead by providing the information technology (IT) infrastructure required for the digital economy to take roots in their respective countries. The digital revolution provides the means for domestic food suppliers to adopt e-commerce, which can keep both domestic and international AFSs functioning and support local (or homestead) production of nutrient-rich foods thus ensuring access even in a crisis such as a global pandemic.

9. Improving food systems productivity is a necessary condition for promoting youth and women’s engagement in farming as a business and as productive employees in the agrifood sector. Raising productivity will improve

the profitability of jobs in Africa’s AFSs. Efforts to raise productivity must be complemented by government actions to remove barriers to youth and women’s participation and success. Some of these actions may include: (i) land-use policies that grant land ownership rights to youths and women; (ii) targeted policies that expand investment opportunities in food systems by small- and medium-scale firms; (iii) public investments that improve the productivity of farming as a business; (iv) investments in rural infrastructure that lower the costs of agri-business; (v) rules-based marketing, and trade policies that mitigate political risks/raise the level of predictability of government behavior in agricultural markets; (vi) targeted capacity-building programs for youth and women-owned agri-businesses; and (vii) upgrading education systems to improving the skill base of youth and women in agriculture.

Priorities for Pan-African organizations

With many small and relatively poor countries, Africa often experiences difficulties in getting its voice heard on the world stage. While African countries are heterogenous, they face many common problems. Solutions from outside the continent, which are not responsive to African contexts, have sometimes done more harm than good (Pritchett, 2004). Pan-African organizations operating under the direction of African political and economic leaders, have a particular responsibility to bridge these gaps. One recent example of this is the AU Africa Common Position to the UNFSS.

To support African leaders, farmers, private agripreneurs, and consumers to play a more effective role in the development of a sustainable and resilient African food system, Pan-African Organizations should take on the following responsibilities:

1. Stand together with the African Union Commission (AUC) to amplify Africa’s voice in global policy dialogue on agricultural system governance and decision-making. This can be achieved by lobbying for expansion of the G20 to G21 with the AU as the 21st member. Like the COVID-19 pandemic, many shocks and stressors to Africa’s food systems are exogenous. Because of low technological inputs and value addition to its agricultural products, African countries are generally price takers in global agricultural product markets including those that are dominantly grown in Africa such as cocoa. Decisions made outside Africa therefore significantly shape Africa’s AFSs and national policies to encourage domestic production of staple food crops such as rice, wheat, maize, etc. are often compromised by trade polices enacted and enforced through international treaties. African countries and pan-African organizations should therefore liaise with the AUC to lobby the G20 to admit the AU (along with the European Union - EU, which is already a member) as the 21st member of the G20. This could create

more national ownership for AFS-related global sustainability agendas. For example, transitions to climate-smart agriculture in Africa, which has global climate benefits and directly affects the livelihoods of Africans, can be better achieved through dialogues involving Africa as member of the G20.

2. Invest in regional early warning systems, knowledge management, and dissemination strategies to help countries anticipate and mitigate the consequences of upcoming shocks. Building resilience means more timely anticipation and response to impending shocks. Shocks and stressors do not respect national boundaries often affecting many countries at once or even a whole region. Pan-African organizations should develop and implement a plan to develop regional early warning systems in response to extreme weather, pests, human, animal, and plant disease, and related disasters. These regional systems would support, coordinate with, and build the capacities of national early warning systems. Pan-African organizations can also promote partnerships between regional early warning units and African-led agricultural policy research institutes in the region to fully utilize the information provided by early warning systems.

3. Lead and coordinate with African governments to strengthen the international architecture for agricultural research and development in Africa. This report calls for the vast expansion and upgrading of national agricultural R&D systems to enable both increased sustainability and resilience. However, agricultural R&D is a public good – the knowledge cannot be “used up” through application or consumption. While one of the problems Africa faces in developing and implementing a green revolution is the wide variety of microclimates and soil conditions compared with Latin American or Asia, there are nonetheless similarities across countries (especially where boundaries were drawn by colonial powers), which implies that discoveries in one country could benefit others.

This benefit was explicitly recognized when the CGIAR system was set up to complement and support national agricultural research institutes. While this system has had notable success in Asia and Latin America, results in Africa have not lived up to expectations.

This report recognizes that simply calling for greater spending on agricultural research in and by African countries is not enough. The record of past failures and institutional rivalries shows that additional investments in agricultural research without applying lessons learned would be a mistake. Rather, this report recommends a detailed stocktaking to assess progress and chart a way forward. A specially commissioned report on this issue could address the following elements: (1) estimating the overall continent-wide cost envelope for agricultural research to achieve productivity targets; (2) detail how the international CGIAR system should be reformed so that it coordinates effectively with national agricultural R&D&E systems and promotes food systems technical innovation in African countries; (3) identifying some best-bet technologies that would give early and high returns while the remaining agenda is developed; (4) assessing the institutional configuration that would recognize local needs, transboundary/ regional opportunities and imperatives, and appropriate roles for the private sector; and (5) expanding or initiating the necessary policy and extension system reforms to create an enabling environment supportive of rapid, widespread, and equitable adoption of innovations emanating from agricultural research.

4. As Africa’s major development bank - the African Development Bank Group would be well placed to host and chair such a commission on establishing the Agricultural Science, Technology, and Innovation Trust Fund for Africa (ASTIA – Trust Fund). AfDB would ensure a strong African voice in the analysis and deliberations as well as a focus on practical approaches that can be used by African governments and international development partners to address this critical issue together. The commission could also address whether funding models such as the ASTIA – Trust Fund proposed in Chapter 6 would improve funding for and the effectiveness of African-led agricultural R&D efforts.

5. Strengthen pan-African databases on food systems dynamics. The knowledge base on the value of and changes in African food systems is very weak. This limits the scope of actions which can be considered, and makes it virtually impossible to track trends, monitor outcomes and impacts, and hold actors accountable. While collecting and assembling the data is first and foremost the responsibility of national statistical systems (NSSs), pan-African organizations such as UNECA, AFDB, and others can effectively contribute by consolidating national data into user-friendly databases and encouraging the use of consistent approaches at the national level to effectively track progress and benchmark countries.

6. Encourage an inter-ministerial approach to systemic thinking about the challenges facing African food systems. The challenges facing African food systems are complex and multi-dimensional – most of them cut across ministries, requiring new approaches and experimentation. For example, several chapters of this report have stressed the important role of human capacity development and hence ministries of education in building resilient and sustainable food systems. Other chapters have highlighted how agricultural land expansion is contributing to deforestation, water stress, and the demand for energy in ways that may require ministries of agriculture, lands, natural resources, and energy to collaborate more closely to tackle these challenges more effectively. Moreover, the views of multiple stakeholders including farmers, other private sector actors, ministries and agencies, and civil society organizations (CSOs) must be integrated into policymaking to effectively reflect the collective action of communities and specific groups. Holistic thinking, as embodied in circular economy principles and true cost accounting approaches, will require refining and experimentation before it can be a standard tool in African government policy development toolkits. Pan-African organizations can support knowledge development and exchange on the continent and with other developing countries to advance solutions to chronic food systems resilience and sustainability problems, especially if they are supported by external donors to do so.

Priorities for international organizations, bilateral and multilateral development partners

International development partners should encourage and permit African governments to formulate their own agendas for enhanced resilience and food system sustainability. This will require supporting governments as they formulate and implement their respective agendas including through technical assistance and following the lead of African governments and regional institutions in their own support programs. Development partners should avoid overloading African national governments with their own demands and requirements and instead support African governments to build the requisite state capacity to manage and develop their respective food systems at their own pace. In some cases, this may mean accommodating imperfections as these governments and societies learn and develop. With their longer-term financing, international development banks including AfDB and the World Bank should deepen their commitment to African food system resilience investments. Specific action areas for development partners include to:

1. Refocus funding models to benefit longterm institutional capacity development and agricultural knowledge and technology transfer in the sector. Supporting national, regional, and continental institutions through scaled agricultural R&D&E investments would help to leverage international development partner funding and enhance the multiplier effects. Current models focused on programmatic support crowd out opportunities for long-term institutional capacity and good governance of agricultural research, technology, and innovations, which are in themselves the foundations for structural transformation, resilience capacity, and sustainable development. Funding large-scale collaborative research involving national, regional, and international universities, think tanks, and research organizations will enhance knowledge integration and technology diffusion.

2. Prioritize integrated inclusive demand-driven and adaptive agricultural research and technology development in their funding programs. Public investment in homegrown adaptive agricultural R&D&E can promote climate-smart and sustainable ‘improved practices’ that are adapted to the highly-varied biophysical and economic conditions of rural Africa. Current financing models prioritizing funding for international research organizations crowds out endogenous knowledge systems. Notably, tacit knowledge that is context-specific and effective but which has yet to be codified in generally accepted knowledge products such as research reports, and journal articles is excluded in this model. Some of these tacit knowledge systems have worked for millennia and remain key parts of African AFSs today. They are therefore no doubt sustainable. Agricultural research funding that encourages the integration of both tacit and codified knowledge by fostering equal partnerships and collaboration among the different knowledge providers including local communities and CBOs, national universities, think tanks, NGOs, and the private sector is more likely to foster socio-technical transitions towards resilient and sustainable AFSs than current funding models that prioritize international originations. Homegrown social innovations transform societies more cost-effectively than externally driven R&D, education, and extension.

3. Support for African-led food systems policy analysis capacity. Building the capacity of African-led technical and policy expertise is an important element of sustainability and resilience as it ensures adequate internal capacity to guide national and regional policy decisions. Instead of continuing to rely on international partners to provide technical analysis and policy guidance, international development partners should therefore work to build up regional and national policy analysis capacity to ensure internal world-class policy guidance for African states, supported by international research institutes where necessary.

Priorities for the private sector

The vast majority of investment in African food systems comes from the private sector, which includes millions of smallholder farmers and informal traders. The private sector invests in productive capacity, imports and adapts new technologies, and innovates to respond to the African context and customer needs. Many private agribusiness firms, especially those engaged in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the developing world, have realized that a focus on short-term profits is neither enough to ensure their own sustainability and resilience nor the sustainability of the systems in which they operate. Companies are increasingly focused on the “triple bottom line” – people, profits, and the planet. Similar to the deficiencies of national accounts systems in measuring the true cost of food systems policies and practices, companies are also realizing that financial balance sheets do not measure the true value of doing business. Multi-national companies doing business in Africa can lead the reform of food systems through stronger analysis of the full costs and benefits of their production processes and interact with other stakeholders to develop solution-driven approaches to reduce the adverse effects that AFSs as currently constructed impose on our health, societal values, and planet.

In countries with favorable policy incentives, the private sector should also become the engine for solution-driven innovations, technology development, and commercialization in the AFS. Such innovations should target scaling agroallied industrialization to drive value addition along key agricultural value chains in countries. The private sector can and should play key roles in operationalizing the AfCTA. Efforts should be focused on building sustainable and resilient regional value chains and providing technology-based solutions, innovative financing, and digital market platforms.


In the context of the UN Decade of Action to achieve the SDGs by 2030, in September 2021, the world will convene at the global UNFSS under the auspices of the UN Secretary-General. The Summit will focus on game-changing solutions to transform food systems across the globe. The African Governments’ Common Position to the UNFSS recognizes the emerging broad consensus that African food systems are not providing adequate food and nutrition and are not resilient or sustainable. This AASR21 has laid out contributing factors at various stages of the food systems and outlined the characteristics of a new resilient and sustainable system.

Reforming food systems to achieve lasting change is a complex task. It requires cooperation from all system stakeholders with African governments firmly in the drivers’ seat steering the required change. This AASR21 has argued that lasting change is possible if African governments play the role of leading domestic actors effectively with the support of external stakeholders. Africa can learn from the experiences of more developed countries and avoid their mistakes. However, Africa needs to step up and take the reins from others, however well intentioned, who have been directing the flows of international development assistance for decades. There is no substitute for African-led processes in local research and development, policy formulation and implementation, and institutional development. While international partners cannot develop Africa by themselves, they can substantially contribute if Africans and African organizations truly take ownership and lead the process. Evidence from the past two decades shows that this local dynamism has flourished in Africa where the necessary stability, sustainability, and resilience frameworks are in place. Now, African governments need to harness this energy toward strengthening AFSs, for the health and welfare of current and future populations.

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