top of page
  • Writer's pictureStudentGuiders

Building Sustainable Food Systems

More sustainable and resilient food systems in Africa will increase the pace of the region’s overall economic transformation and raise living standards in the process. Moreover, investing in resilient and sustainable food systems today will spare African governments from incurring considerably greater costs down the road. Other key messages include the following:

1. The recent COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for food systems that are more resilient to shocks (Chapter 2). Resilience is needed in all system domains:

a. Economic, through continuously: raising productivity throughout the system; raising incomes and savings relative to the costs of adjusting to shocks; exploiting opportunities for harnessing and converting conventional wastes into valued inputs (e.g., organic wastes from urban areas into compost for improved soil health and farm productivity).

b. Social, by prioritizing an inclusive, equitable, and empowering system that ensures access to affordable and safe food and adequate nutrition for all; and

c. Environmental, by conserving and regenerating natural assets such as soils, water, forests, and biodiversity, and minimizing the release of carbon and industrial pollutants into the atmosphere.

2. Resilience can be measured empirically as the ability to bounce back from shocks and avoid prolonged downturns. In this respect, SSA has become more resilient over the past three decades (Chapter 2). The annual growth rates of agricultural production and overall economic growth have progressively risen and become less variable in every decade since the 1980s.

Table 1.1: Indicators of resilience and sustainability by decade, Sub-Saharan Africa

Average value by decade





% of households residing on degrading soils



Energy depletion (% of Gross National Income, GNI)





Forest area (% of land area)





Water stress ratio





Notes: Soil nutrient budget is calculated as the sum of inputs (synthetic fertilizer, manure applied to soils, atmospheric deposition, and biological fixation), minus the output (crop removal); higher levels mean soil nutrient depletion. Energy depletion is the ratio of the value of the stock of energy resources to the remaining reserve lifetime. Water stress ratio is defined as freshwater withdrawal as a proportion of available renewable freshwater resources (World Development Indicators, 2021); higher levels mean greater water stress.

Source: World Bank (2021) for all indicators except forest area (FAO Corporate Statistical Database, FAOSTAT) and percentage of households residing on degrading soils (Sitko and Jayne, 2018).

3. Food systems function according to the capacities and decisions of the individuals, organizations, and institutions engaging in these systems.

Resilience requires substantial state capacity in government ministries and agencies to respond effectively to shocks and stressors, which in turn require improvements in nations’ education systems (Chapters 2 and 7).

4. Unless effectively addressed today, the growing incidence of conflict and climate-related shocks and the prevalence of health, economic, and other shocks and stressors will slow down Africa’s economic transformation and progress toward sustainable development (Chapter 3). Risks and shocks are unavoidable and are likely to occur with greater frequency and severity due to global climate change. Bold, timely response today can build the resilience to mitigate the effects of these shocks and stressors and avoid potentially catastrophic impacts.

5. Productivity-led growth is one of the central features of a resilient food system (Chapters 2, 4, and 5). Sustained productivity growth is one of the key drivers of improved livelihoods and resilience. This is particularly true for agriculture in countries where a large share of the labor force is employed in the food system. Food systems cannot grow sustainably in environments where farm productivity is not improving. When real incomes and savings rise compared to the cost of food, consumers become more resilient – they are better able to absorb shocks.

6. Food system resilience and sustainability in Africa requires increasing the rate of growth in farm productivity on existing farmland, relieving the need for rapid expansion of cropland and associated destruction of forests and grasslands to meet the continent’s food needs (Chapter 4). This requires:

a. technical innovation resulting from

investments in agricultural research and development (e.g., crop science, animal science, agronomic management, etc.);

b. increasing land yields without compromising environmental sustainability (avoiding soil degradation, erosion and depletion of soil organic matter through the use of cover crops and water management to prevent depleted aquifers); and

c. increasing use of organic inputs to restore and preserve degraded soils. One tactic is the increased use of circular economy principles, recycling wastes – outputs from the production process with negative value such as wastes from urban markets and sanitation systems – back into food production.

7. Achieving farm productivity growth will require a faster pace of technical innovation and greater support to the agricultural institutions that generate it: agricultural R&D&E systems (Chapters 4 and 7). On average, African governments spend much less on agricultural R&D than governments in Asia and Latin America do, and generally less than their own commitments under the Malabo Declaration Agreements[1]. African governments need to take charge of developing their respective national agricultural R&D&E systems to build sustainable and resilient food systems.

8. Productivity must also improve in downstream value addition activities. The key here is for governments to provide the investments and policies that stimulate private investment, innovation, and competition in food systems (Chapter 5). It is generally not necessary or desirable for the state to directly engage or control activities in the downstream stages of the food system.

9. Africa’s agri-food system offers growth potential to large-scale, multinational agribusinesses as well as medium-sized domestic businesses (Chapter 5). Over the past five years, some of the world’s largest grain traders, food processors, and wholesale/ retailers have expanded their investments on the continent. The prospect of a single market with more than a billion consumers and a combined GDP of more than U$2.5 trillion presents vast opportunities for agribusiness in Africa. The expanded markets create unprecedented opportunities to capitalize on economies of scale. Realizing this potential will require effective implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). It will also require improving Africa’s challenging business environment, strengthening customs and logistics systems, and increasing access to finance, especially for domestic firms.

10. Africa will benefit from “upgrading” value chains in the food system, but this process is best achieved through policies that support agricultural transformation more generally (Chapter 5). While employment in African food systems has grown rapidly over the past 20 years, few of these jobs provide attractive livelihoods. Over 80 percent of the jobs in African agri-food systems are estimated to be in the informal sector featuring mainly self-employed people making very little money and with no job security who must self-insure for theirs and their families’ health care. Upgrading to salaried employment with benefits will take time. Governments should continue to support informal traders and markets while investing in physical infrastructure, improved educational systems, and a policy environment that provides an open and level playing field for private investment. These policies will attract more private registered formal sector firms into African food systems, gradually providing an increasing number of formal sector jobs to individuals formerly employed in low-paying informal sector jobs.

11. One of the most effective ways to attract youth to farming and employment in other stages of food systems is to make these activities more profitable (Chapter 8). Making agriculture “sexy” is not nearly as important as making it profitable. Attracting youth into gainful employment in upstream and downstream food systems will involve: (i) policies that expand investment opportunities in food systems by small, medium and large firms; (ii) public investments that improve the productivity of farming; (iii) investments in infrastructure that lower the costs of commerce; and (iv) rulesbased marketing and trade policies that raise the level of predictability of government behavior in agricultural markets, and (v) upgrading education systems to improve the skill base of youth entering the labor force.

12. Africa still has the highest rates of stunting, anemia, and hungry people in the world, another food system weakness (Chapter 6). Key drivers include inadequate investment in pro-nutrition seed varieties that are appropriate for local conditions and consumer preferences, and rural poverty. Measures are needed to increase the supply of nutrient-rich crops and incentivize consumers to purchase healthier foods (for example, through public health campaigns and food subsidies for pregnant and nursing women).

13. Social protection programs are shown to have positive effect on a series of productive outcomes, including resiliency (Chapter 9). Programs enable households to make investments, take on risks, reallocate labor, and engage in markets. There are synergies and complementarities between social protection and agricultural interventions.

14. Resilience means adding redundancy (for example, alternative ways of getting food to consumers in the event of shocks). Building in these alternatives entails costs, which need to be shared fairly to ensure social sustainability. Financing investments in resilience and sustainability will impede the rate at which other public infrastructure and services are built and upgraded, unless adequately financed. Financing for climate adaptation and sustainable resource use is needed throughout the food system, including in the public and private sectors. International finance institutions (IFIs) such as the African Development Bank (AfDB) and the World Bank lack the resources to fully cover needed investments. Rich countries, which have become wealthier by using production processes that have emitted greenhouse gasses on the planet for centuries, need to support sustainable and food system transformation in Africa, the region most affected by global climate change, yet with the lowest level of emissions. Governments and development partners may join forces to provide incentives for the private sector to finance some of the needed investments in food systems resilience.

15. Africa needs new ways of thinking to building resilient and sustainable food systems, including taking a holistic approach to the costs and benefits of alternative system development paths. A recent AGRA study found that the locust attack affecting much of East Africa in 2020 was linked to climate change, especially a prolonged period of exceptionally wet weather related to several rare cyclones that struck the region prior to the invasion, which in turn were related to the conversion of forestland to agriculture and other forms of forest degradation (AGRA, 2021). A recent Rockefeller study indicates that the true cost of food delivered through the US food system is three times greater than the total consumer food expenditures after considering health outcomes, healthcare costs, environmental costs, subsidies, and other impacts. There are growing calls for the use of “true cost accounting” as a systemic and more comprehensive approach to illuminate policy makers and the public about the positive and negative impacts of current and alternative food systems on the environment, livelihoods, health, and the economy. Approaches such as

“true cost accounting” illuminate key issues that intersect food systems, incomes, energy, environment, health, and welfare. Agricultural policymakers may not immediately consider some of these issues as their direct concerns, but rather as belonging to other ministries or agencies. However, these issues do not fall neatly under any one ministry - they are difficult and complex cross-ministry/sectoral issues that require new tools and ways of doing business. It is necessary that African governments and technical institutions devote time and resources to build up the muscle to address these challenges. Development partners can support African governments by providing demand-driven support rather than overloading development agendas with their own priorities.

The way forward

African states will develop more rapidly and African citizens experience more rapid livelihood improvements if African food systems become more resilient to major shocks and stressors affecting the continent. The future of African food systems, and smallholder farmers’ roles in them, will be determined by the totality of government policies and investments.

The challenge ahead for Africa is daunting and complex but with adequate support, it can be met. Chapter 10 of this publication contains an agenda for action compiled from Chapters 3-9 and Annex Table 1 (below) and details priorities for African governments, pan-African organizations, the private sector, and bilateral and multi-lateral development partners. Chapter 10 argues that African governments must drive the specific agenda in their respective countries, including actions to:

• improve sustainability and resilience in farm production by raising productivity on existing farmland rather than continue relying on area expansion as the source of agricultural growth; this means technical innovation that requires, among other things, strengthening national agricultural research, development and extension systems;

• support the institutions involved in helping farmers to improve soil health with a focus on higher yielding seed varieties, increased and more efficient use of inorganic fertilizers, and organic inputs and integrated soil fertility management practices, which will improve yield stability in the face of various shocks and stressors on incomes;

• increase value addition, productivity, and quality in the downstream stages of food systems by making investments that reduce the costs of domestic, intra-African and international trade, supporting the implementation of AfCFTA, promoting safer and more nutritious food, and reducing the use of fossil fuels in production and transport;

• increase the pace of investment in transport and communications infrastructure to reduce

the costs of national and regional food trade; and

• enhance capacity to prepare for shocks and adapt to stressors in the public and private sector.

African governments should direct pan-African organizations to support their priorities. This would entail:

• supporting efforts to project a unified African voice in global policy dialogue on agricultural system governance;

• supporting national government’s capacity for resilience planning, and mitigation and coping measures by developing a continent-wide early

warning system and knowledge management capability;

• developing and supporting Africa-wide data banks to benchmark national efforts, promote African-led analyses, and pilot new analytical approaches such as true cost accounting;

• AfDB commissioning a detailed stocktaking with development partner support to assess progress and chart a way forward for African countries to avoid repeating past mistakes of technical innovation being dominated by international research groups while national agricultural R&D, policy analysis, and knowledge management systems

remain starved for resources and fail to build sustainable capacity.

International development partners should encourage African governments to formulate their own agendas for enhanced resilience and food system sustainability rather than create parallel ones. This implies supporting governments as they formulate and implement their agendas, including through technical assistance, and then following the lead of African governments’ and regional institutions’ own programs, or withdrawing altogether. Development partners should avoid overloading African national governments with their own demands and requirements and instead support African governments to build sustainable state capacity to manage and develop food systems at a suitable pace. In some cases, this may mean tolerating imperfections as governments and societies learn and develop. International development banks such as AfDB and the World Bank should deepen their commitment to African food system resilience investments with their longer-term financing.

[1] In June 2014, African Heads of State and Government adopted the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods, a set of goals to be attained by 2025. The goals show a more targeted approach to achieve Africa’s agricultural vision, which is shared prosperity and improved livelihoods. The Malabo Summit reconfirmed that agriculture should remain high on Africa’s development agenda and is a critical policy initiative for African economic growth and poverty reduction.

Recent Posts

See All

When infusing pantoprazole, use a separate IV line, a pump, and an in-line filter. A brown wrapper and frequent vital signs are not needed. A client has gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The pro

Your paragraph text(10).png
bottom of page