As the African Union Special Envoy for Food Systems, what is the scope of your mandate and what should Africans expect from you?
The role of special envoys of the AU is primarily to tackle a critical issue for which the AU needs support. A special envoy does not seek to replace or take over the responsibilities of the AU or the AU Commission (AUC). Instead, their role is to support and enhance their work by bringing additional value.
This is the first time the AU is designating a Special Envoy specifically dedicated to food systems. Previously, notable individuals such as Rwanda’s Donald Kaberuka served as Special Envoy for Financing and Michel Sidibé from Mali as Special Envoy for the African Medicines Agency.
There are three main reasons behind this decision to designate a special envoy for food systems. These issues were thoroughly discussed when I accepted the designation.
Firstly, we could enter a post-Ukraine war era that will be characterised by a crisis in food systems.
Leaders must not only establish the food systems but should also ensure their effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes
The market has witnessed an unfavourable evolution, and African countries are suffering the consequences of that war. We have observed shortages of vital resources such as fertilisers, seeds, wheat, etc. The crisis and our response to it have revealed a lack of co-ordinated efforts.
Hence, the first reason for appointing a Special Envoy is to ensure preparedness for such a crisis, even as we anticipate more crises in the future.
The second reason relates to the many initiatives addressing food systems issues in Africa. We have some complexity in terms of initiatives, and this complexity necessitates better management and coherence.
Without proper co-ordination, Member States and their stakeholders may struggle to comprehend the direction we are heading in. Therefore, the appointment aims to foster preparedness and enhance coherence among these initiatives.
The third reason, closely linked to the previous two, pertains to resource mobilisation. Specifically, it refers to the need to mobilise domestic resources to address the challenges faced in food systems.
We also have the resources of multilateral development banks and other institutions that can support Africa’s endeavours in transforming its food systems.
Q: Apart from the Ukraine crisis, what other factors are jeopardising Africa’s food systems?
I will start by unpacking the concept of food systems. Previously, and still now, we talked about agriculture, agricultural production, rural economy, diversification, agricultural productivity, food security and insecurity.
We are talking about food systems now because it embraces the entire spectrum, in an integrated manner, of processes, from the farmer to the consumer, and, in-between, the numerous actors and sectors.
Evidently, food systems are about production, nutrition, roads and other infrastructure, markets, and trade. It’s about connecting farmers to markets, about education and entrepreneurship, enabling small-scale farmers to become micro and small entrepreneurs. It’s about agribusiness.
Additionally, it emphasizes the importance of providing consumers with essential information and addressing the impacts of climate change, particularly in regions like Africa that suffer greatly despite being net zero emitters.
If we look at Africa today, it’s true that we have reduced extreme poverty in the past 20 to 25 years, but at the same time there is an increase in malnutrition.
Our food import bill is still very high, beyond $60 billion a year. The small-scale farmers who produce 80 per cent of the food we eat also suffer from malnutrition and food insecurity, which is abnormal.
We have utilised frameworks such as CAADP [the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme] and the Malabo Declaration to address agricultural development. The Malabo Declaration is considered a precursor to food systems because it opened agriculture to other sectors.
It is a kind of CAADP phase two, and it has been well implemented with over 40 countries adopting national agricultural investment plans. The African Development Bank has started to develop compacts at the national levels to enable countries have frameworks that will attract financing.
So, we have the frameworks, but we need two radical things to occur.
The first one is to have a whole-of-government approach toward food systems transformation and not leave it to the agriculture or the environment ministries.
Secondly, we need to invest more in food systems to reduce food insecurity. I said at the Ibrahim Governance Weekend [held from 28-30 April, 2023] that food insecurity is not a question of production; it’s a question of poverty. At the end of the day the main aim is to tackle poverty.
Africa’s food import bill is beyond $60 billion a year.
Africa will have approximately 2.5 billion people by 2050
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Now is the time to sprint if we want to end hunger, achieve other SDGs. Regarding CAADP, we see that many countries are still not meeting their commitment to invest 10 per cent of national budgets in agriculture and rural development?
You are right. Only around 10 to 12 countries out of the 50-plus have managed to reach the target of investing 10 per cent of their national budgets in agriculture.
However, some countries claim to meet the 10 percent threshold, but their expenditures include items that are not directly linked to food systems or the transformation of agriculture through a sound integrated plan.
When you have a head of state who prioritises agricultural transformation and provides the drive that leads to results and impact, that transformation happens. So, the issue of leadership is critical.
Technically, we know what needs to be done—agricultural techniques, access to market and finance, and increasing yields—but we need the political solution and determination to move forward.
Sometimes you have leadership but lack the necessary systems. Leaders must not only establish the systems but also ensure their effectiveness in achieving desired outcomes.
Q: How do you anticipate the AfCFTA’s [African Continental Free Trade Area] potential to strengthen Africa’s food systems, considering the complexities and the need for an integrated approach?
The AfCFTA aims to resolve the issues of tariff and non-tariff barriers and to facilitate the flows of goods and services. These require working on normative issues such as rules and regulations.
But it’s not the AfCFTA by itself that will facilitate production. The success of the AfCFTA in enhancing our food systems transformation is contingent upon the availability of robust infrastructure such as roads, railways, and storage facilities.
So, the AfCFTA is an important instrument, but it must be complemented by sound policies and well-developed infrastructure.
Food insecurity is not a question of production; it’s a question of poverty. At the end of the day the main aim is to tackle poverty
Can that be done?
Again, I emphasize the importance of effective national leadership in addressing our prevailing challenges, as many of them necessitate solutions at the national level. While regional solutions are crucial, national governments need to embrace and implement these regional solutions.
Furthermore, it is vital to ensure coherence among all our initiatives. We should not adopt disparate approaches from various institutions, as this would create a landscape of competing initiatives. Instead, we must assert our strategic frameworks and urge our partners to align with these frameworks.
These frameworks include CAADP, the Malabo Declaration, and the African Common Position on Food Systems, which was developed through inclusive national dialogues involving over 50 countries.
Q: How does the Africa Common Position on Food Systems inform your preparation and participation in the upcoming UN Food Systems Stocktaking Moment?
At the UN Food Systems and Stocktaking exercise, each region of the world will present a position. Africa’s position will revolve around three key issues.
The first one is financing food systems transformation. It should be a priority for our partners that our capacity to mobilise domestic resources is not undermined.
The second is climate, which will need to be looked at in a very realistic manner. Despite commitments made at the various COPS, many of them remain unfulfilled. If these commitments cannot be respected, we must explore alternative approaches to climate finance.
The third is about our small-scale farmers. The farmers are a part of a private sector we are talking about. The private sector is not only agribusiness; it also includes small-scale farmers who have the capacity and knowledge to transform our food systems. They need to be supported, as it is done in the US and Europe.
At the stocktaking exercise, what will also be looked at is how far we have gone in implementing the conclusions of the 2021 Food Systems Summit and what lessons each region can learn from the others.
Q: With Africa’s projected population reaching approximately 2.5 billion by 2050, coupled with the existing challenge of over 250 million malnourished Africans, is there a sense of heightened concern among policymakers and stakeholders?
This question is extremely pertinent because Africa’s population is set to double by 2050. The most critical concern is the challenge of feeding over 1 billion additional people. Failure to address this issue with the necessary capacity and solutions will not only strain our existing governance systems but also heighten social fragility.
Given our demographic situation, the risk of encountering numerous political crises becomes imminent.
Urgency is paramount, necessitating an alarmist approach and accelerating the implementation of solutions, especially considering that a significant portion of the projected population growth already exists today.
This acceleration must be achieved through the appropriate policies and political determination.
Source: Africa Renewal, United Nations
IPS UN Bureau