Africa can fill Europe food gaps


Groceries trader in Nyeri town. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Europe needs more fruit and vegetables. But, British supermarkets started to impose restrictions on fruit and vegetables, especially tomatoes.

Is there an opportunity for Africa to step up production to fill the gap?

While many experts and analysts attribute the shortage to poor weather conditions in southern Europe and North Africa, others argue that the problem of reduced supply is more significant than the weather.

Moreover, some experts predict that the challenges will be short-lived as farmers respond to higher prices and the emergence of new supply sources.

But they must consider why one of the largest producers, like the Netherlands scaled down the production. And that there is more to it.

In October 2022, Stephan van Marrewijk from Vicasol, a farmer’s cooperative in Spain, predicted that the Dutch tomatoes would not be on the market this winter and that no one knew what would happen.

He was right, but only a few in Spain took advantage of the predictions.

Dutch farmers grow their tomatoes under greenhouses covering almost 100 square kilometres to light the crops. By value, the Netherlands is the second-largest exporter of food behind the United States.

But the war in Ukraine aggravated the energy costs forcing the farmers out of competition during winter.

The other top exporters of tomatoes are Mexico, Morocco, and France, but they did not respond with increased production; perhaps they had not seen the predictive data.

Africa could not respond to the shortage crisis due to stringent compliance requirements with several regulations and standards designed to ensure that the tomatoes meet the required quality and safety standards.

According to a report by Research and Markets, the global market value of tomatoes in 2021 was estimated to be around $237.7 billion.

The market value of tomatoes is driven by factors such as increasing demand for processed tomato products, growing awareness about the health benefits of tomatoes, and the rising popularity of tomato-based cuisine in various regions of the world.

Currently, Morocco, Egypt, and Nigeria are among the largest producers of tomatoes in Africa. This calls for other countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), to also step up their production for export by following the required international standards.

There is no doubt that SSA will have a competitive advantage owing to the region’s abundant labour, land, and other natural benefits like climate.

In addition, the continent should be at the forefront of advocating for sustainable methods of food production,

Continued food production from greenhouses unnecessarily pollutes the environment when there are resources to produce the same without too many repercussions.

In 2021, for example, the Netherlands’ total carbon emissions (178.2 million metric tons (MMTs) were almost half of the entire Africa’s (436 MMTs) in the same period.

For Africa to play a more significant role in global food systems, the continent has to invest in data, technology, and capacity building of cooperatives.

Technology like data is critical in modern agricultural practices. It helps producers and buyers trace produce from farm to table, monitor plant health to optimize outcomes and standardise production for both the local and the international markets such that the continent can respond to crises like the current tomato shortage.

In addition, it enables producers to improve efficiency, reduce waste, and enhance product quality and safety, making producers more competitive.

Emerging technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence could transform agricultural production systems and improve the continent’s competitiveness.

Kenya’s largest market is Europe, but it demands high standards of products that can be traced to the source.

Producers, too, require measures to optimise yields, maintain quality control, manage the supply chain better and improve the efficiency of their operations.

By extension, these technologies increase effectiveness and customer satisfaction. Thus, enabling producers to make better decisions and maintain global competitiveness.

Since smallholder farmers have become the backbone of food production in Africa, their success depends on how they can cooperate to optimise their resources.

By working together, farmers can optimise marketing and logistic costs to improve their earnings. In other countries, a well-managed farmer cooperative movement is imperative.

As such, I envisage that local cooperatives will embrace clear goals, effective governance structures, active member participation, skilled management, strong financial management, and a market-oriented focus, collaborating and networking with other stakeholders in their industry.

These characteristics could restore trust but also ensure that farmer cooperatives effectively achieve their objectives and provide benefits to their members.

In an increasingly changing world with threats of war, disease and climate change, Africa must take advantage of her natural advantages to play a prominent role in food production systems, respond to food security concerns, and advocate for sustainable development.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.

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