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Agro-value addition can help Africa dig itself out of poverty

Richard Munang
Dr Richard Munang, co-ordinator of the Africa Regional Climate Change Programme at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep). PHOTO | COURTESY 

Africa boasts millions of acreage of arable land, plenty of skilled and unskilled labour and favourable weather for agriculture in the world. For the last 20 years, the continent has invested more than $15 billion in agriculture to boost its food security.

But even with these resources, in 2018, 239 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (22.8 per cent) were undernourished, the highest prevalence of all regions in the world, according to Hunger Relief in Africa. With the threat of climate change, the equation has become even more complicated.

Richard Munang, a development expert and the coordinator of the Africa Regional Climate Change Programme at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), spoke to the Business Daily about agriculture in the face of climate change, Africa’s place in the climate action discourse and the opportunities that exist.

AFRICA HASN’T SHAKEN OFF THE CHALLENGE OF FOOD INSECURITY IN SPITE OF HEAVY INVESTMENT. WHERE ARE WE LOSING THE PLOT?

We can no longer consider agriculture as a silo sector. Climate change has led to up to a 40 per cent decline of yields in our key staples, which further threatens our food security. Solutions abound, but there are two key approaches to remedy this scenario. First, we must focus on value addition of the produce.

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Currently, Africa loses food worth $48 billion (Sh4.8 trillion) each year as a result of postharvest losses. This has to change. Secondly, we must integrate nature-based ecological approaches at the farm level such as agroforestry, mulching and conservation agriculture to buffer against yield declines exacerbated by climate change.

WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE REGION’S RESPONSE TO THE CURRENT DESERT LOCUST INVASION?

So far, the region has deployed tools at its disposal in battling the locust attack, which is commendable. Use of pesticides has been the most common tool in Africa’s arsenal. This is understandable given the urgent nature of the problem. That said, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the majority of pesticides are non-selective and that other organisms are affected as well. Some of the most effective chemicals against the locusts, for instance, are highly toxic to bees too.

Killing off bees is actually counterproductive to achieving long-term food security. Pollination is recorded as the highest contributor to yields globally, and contributes far beyond any other agricultural management practice.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO QUANTIFY THE EXPECTED IMPACT OF THE LOCUST INVASION ON FOOD SECURITY?

An average-size swarm can destroy as much food crops in a day as is sufficient to feed 2,500 people. A single locust swarm can clear a farmer’s field between morning and midday. That single field represents the entire livelihood of the farmer. The situation is even worse, especially coming at a time when the region just recovered from a drought.

IN YOUR BOOK, YOU SAY ‘A RISING AFRICA CANNOT SUCCUMB TO PURPORTED CHALLENGES’. DO YOU CONSIDER THE CONTINENT'S PROBLEMS AS IMAGINARY?

Africa’s challenges are not peculiar. There are solutions to all our existing problems. In 1963, South Korea, an economic giant today, was in dire straits and facing starvation.

Kenya and other African countries stepped in to help. At the time, an average African had two times more money than a South Korean. Fast forward to today, the average South Korean is 10 times wealthier than the average African.

The Asians dag themselves out of poverty by maximising their productivity of catalytic areas of comparative advantage and investing in their people.

HOW CAN AFRICA HARNESS CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION TO ACCELERATE SOCIOECONOMIC TRANSFORMATION?

Clean energy decentralised to power agro-value addition is one of the ways. Seychelles, for instance, adopted a policy that integrated rainwater harvesting into building codes. The proven cost-savings in water bills then attracted non-state actors such as individual homes and private and public sector institutions to invest in rainwater harvesting systems.

WHAT OPPORTUNITIES EXIST IN THIS DOMAIN?

Tapping into complementary sectors such as clean energy and ICT where it is applied to link produce to market information is a ripe opportunity for the continent. By practising agriculture within a sustainable environment, Africa will have positioned itself strategically for the $20billion (Sh2 trillion) global market for allergen-free foods. This is a far more effective and productive investment than the traditional climate action engagements such as planting trees alone.

Faced with the need to create no less than 750,000 jobs every month in this era of globalised competition, Africa’s economies are 20 times less productive than competitors in the global economy. So, increasing climate action ambition must be in the trajectory that creates competitive enterprises that will unlock more incomes for the population.

DO YOU THINK AFRICA NEEDS TO RESTRUCTURE ITS DEVELOPMENT STRATEGY?

I strongly believe so. We need incentives such as mentorship and guidance for our youth, and to create an environment that inspires and motivates them to work with passion and energy for the collective good. It’s unfortunate that despite our balanced weather, large mineral deposits, beautiful sceneries, wildlife, arable lands, adequate water and the best solar resource we still lag behind the rest of the world. To solve our developmental challenges, focus should be on the root cause of our problems as opposed to the consequences. We’re innovative, well-resourced and skilled enough to transform the continent.

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