Tackling poverty and food insecurity in Africa are critical challenges that need a collaborative approach across the continent. This is according to delegates who participated in a recent World Food Day webinar hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) in association with the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa).
World Food Day is commemorated worldwide on 16 October to recognise the founding of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in 1945.
During the recent webinar, speakers focused on the theme ‘Finding pathways towards agroecological transitions in Africa’. Senior researchers reflected on lessons learned from their past research and fellows shared their aspirations for contributing to sustainable and equitable food systems.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is an obvious example of how the challenges of poverty and food insecurity easily become transnational,” said Dr Emmanuel Abbey, a consultant with the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA). “It is important that we use a collaborative approach to deal with some of these challenges.”
Dr Abbey said ARUA, which was formed in 2015, was premised on encouraging partnerships between African universities to address the brain drain and find solutions via “clusters of excellence” that tackle common challenges facing the continent.
He added that ARUA is soon to release details of a study that show a significant increase in the contribution of African researchers to knowledge production globally from an average of 1% to between 5% and 6%.
Right to food
“Our mission is to strengthen these universities through capacity building, making us stronger together,” Dr Abbey said. “It’s about coming together as a cluster to deal with food insecurity simply because no single university can do it on their own.”
Other speakers included Professor Julian May, Director of the Department of Science and Innovation-National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in Food Security at the University of the Western Cape.
“The right to food requires that food be available, accessible and adequate for everyone,” Prof May said. “But not just food – people should eat healthily and have balanced diets.”
It is disheartening, he added, that people around the world are still going to bed hungry on World Food Day, which is why it was essential to unpack the issue further, focusing on pertinent questions and policy interventions on the scientific research available and whether they’re able to promote ecological growth transitions.
“We are about building capacity for African-focused food system research and developing long-term partnerships for research across one’s sectors and geographies,” Prof May said. “The other thing we need to pay attention to is the fact that we are about implementing transdisciplinary research. We are not attending to these interconnected challenges in silos.”
Gains reversed by pandemic
Animal nutrition expert Professor Alice Pell of Cornell’s International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development addressed participants on sustainable food systems, highlighting the need for problem-solving given the numerous challenges.
Prof Pell, a visiting professor at UP who is affiliated with the University’s Future Africa Institute, said that, globally, 828 million people are undernourished. That statistic has risen since the pandemic, she added.
“Before the pandemic, we were actually making some reasonable progress, but we've stopped, and we’re going downhill,” Prof Pell said. “Equally, we have a problem: about 39% of the global population is overweight or obese. That’s as much of a health problem as undernutrition. Both overnutrition and undernutrition are related to poverty.”
She cautioned that obesity is a challenge because it is associated with heart disease and diabetes, which diminishes the lifespan of patients.
Prof Pell also cited climate change as a factor that poses significant challenges worldwide. “Every member of the planet eats; therefore, one has to make it a duty to understand the food system as a consumer, a producer or a researcher,” she said.
Engineer Dr Selorm Dorvlo, an FSNet-Africa fellow from the University of Ghana, spoke about transforming food systems with agroecology, looking at possible pathways and interactions for integrating sustainable mechanisation. His research seeks to understand the effect of machinery on productivity and household income.
“Profitability is at the heart of farming,” he noted. “So if you link the machinery used to how profitable the farm is, you can make a case for more use of this machinery.”
Increasing efficiency of the African food system
Dr Dorvlo said the overall impact of research is to improve livelihoods and achieve food security while reducing inequalities.
Dr Antoinette Anim-Jnr, a lecturer in the Department of Animal Science at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Ghana, said her study found that livestock can be used to increase the efficiency of the African food system and create a circular agri-food system.
“Investigations that address these existing gaps will go a long way to meeting our demand for animal-source foods as we strive to feed our growing population,” she said. “Against this backdrop, our project seeks to explore agroecological practices to improve livestock production among smallholder farmers in rural Ghana.”
FSNet-Africa fellow of the University of Zambia Dr Bridget Bwalya Umar pointed out that N’shima, a cooked maize product that is a staple food in Zambia, is under threat because most farmers are smallholders, which makes them both producers and consumers, so they grow the maize to sell and eat from the same produce.
“This creates a problem because, as farmers, they want to grow maize and have high yields and sell it,” she explained. “But then when they buy it, they want it cheaply. This has forced the government to offer a subsidy, where they give farmers hybrid maize seed and mineral fertiliser. This has been going on since independence in 1964. Farmers are used to getting fertiliser annually. The result is lower yields, as farmers grow an abundance of maize, add fertiliser and don’t produce anything else or focus on general soil health. It’s always about maize and the mineral fertilisers; because of that, they get meagre yields.”
The webinar closed with a question-and-answer session.