The Hunger Games

••• With millions in SADC starving, governments must act quickly to improve food security

Lilongwe –  The 2013/14 crop harvest in SADC – including cereals, potatoes and cassava – is the highest in five years, but millions of people in the region remain food insecure.

More than 14 million of SADC’s estimated 210 million citizens face hunger in the wake of increased climatic uncertainty that has negatively impacted on cereal crop production.

Aptly, the SADC theme for 2013/14 is “Agricultural Development and Agro-Industries: Key to Economic Growth and Poverty Eradication” and matters of food security took centre stage at the bloc’s recent 33rd Ordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Food security and vulnerability assessments conducted by National Vulnerability Assessment Committees in various SADC member states, and presented to regional leaders in Malawi, show that 14.43 million people – up from 12 million in 2012   risk being food insecure over the coming year.

Furthermore, a UN agency says 11 of SADC’s 15 members will require “immediate humanitarian assistance such as food, cash and agricultural input”.

Oddly, the Southern Africa region has known natural mineral resources valued at more than US$35 trillion.

According to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Compared with last year, the biggest increases in the number of food insecure populations have been recorded in Namibia, followed by Zambia and Swaziland.” 

In fact, all SADC members, say the National Vulnerability Assessment Committees, except for Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique have recorded increases in the number of people at risk of food insecurity.

This is despite the overall increase in cereal production from 35.02 million tonnes in 2012 to 35.11 million tonnes for the last summer season, making this the biggest grain harvest in five years.

But the region needs another 4.01 million tonnes of cereals to feed all citizens, which is higher than the 3.98-million-tonne deficit recorded in 2012/2013.

To be food secure, SADC countries must produce 41.8 million tonnes of cereals per year.

Namibia faces a cereal deficit of close to 210 000 tonnes in the 2013/14 marketing season, and only Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia will have adequate stocks of cereals, though this does not necessarily translate into 100 percent food security.

Namibia’s high-risk factor is the result of severe droughts that afflicted the country over the past two years. Cereal production in 51 percent of growing areas plummeted, in the process increasing food insecurity 11-fold.

The country’s cereal production in 2013 was estimated at 81 000 tonnes, less than half of the 166 000 tonnes recorded last season.

In addition, Namibia’s livestock herds have been decimated since 2011.

Armyworm outbreaks in many parts of the SADC region   including Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe   between December 2012 and February 2013 further compounded the crop failure.

As such, child malnutrition is very high across Southern Africa, with the highest incidences being found in Malawi (47 percent), Lesotho (44 percent), the DRC and Mozambique (43 percent), Tanzania (42 percent), Zimbabwe (32 percent). And Namibia and Swaziland (29 percent).

At the 33rd SADC Summit, regional leaders said more needed to be done to boost production in grains, livestock and fisheries.

SADC Chair President Joyce Banda of Malawi said agriculture was the backbone of most economies in the region yet little was being done to support the sector.

“Stimulating this sector would transform the livelihoods of our people and provide the foundation for the future development of our nations.

“We therefore, need to work harder to help our smallholder and commercial farmers to build, grow and sustain their businesses, to feed ourselves and access new markets beyond our region.”

She said she would focus her energies on innovative agricultural policies and programmes through effective extension services and affordable farming inputs.

President Banda said any policies on agriculture and rural development should be aligned to other regional plans on infrastructure and industrial development.

SADC leaders envisage a reduction in post-harvest losses and improvement in overall food and nutrition security to conform to the Dar-es-Salaam Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security. 

Magret Nyirenda, the Director of Food Agriculture Natural Resources at SADC, said to mitigate food shortages in the region, the bloc’s Secretariat would be engaging member states in implementing livestock and irrigation farming.

Commenting on the importance of the agricultural sector to regional economies, Nyirenda said 27 percent of the GDP of member states comes from agriculture.

“To be honest we cannot survive without agriculture, in our region, agriculture is a backbone of our economy and it facilitates other sectors,” she said.



Feeding the Region


One way SADC could consider improving its food security situation is by introducing sustainable subsidies to support agricultural production.

Because of the high costs of fertilisers, for instance, African farmers account for just three percent of global consumption of inorganic fertiliser, using just 7kg per hectare compared to 150kg per hectare in Asia.

The European Union’s Common Agriculture Policy – the oldest common policy position in the bloc, dating back to 1962 – ensures farmers from that region get billions in subsidies annually.

Agriculture chews up 48 percent of the EU’s budget and yet it contributes less than five percent of the bloc’s GDP.

Malawi’s phenomenal subsidy-backed increase in agricultural production in recent years also states the case for greater investment in the sector.

Other recommendations for SADC have been to increase funding for irrigation (only four percent of Africa’s farmland is irrigated), minimising post-harvest losses, improving access to markets and boosting food distribution networks.

Experts say more emphasis should also be placed in growing drought-resistant small grains.

Furthermore, governments must improve social safety nets so that the most vulnerable citizens are better assisted in times of food insecurity.

Professor Calestous Juma, in his book titled “The New Harvest”, adds that from a long-term planning perspective, science-based agriculture is the best way forward.

He says key elements in the transition to this kind of farming include biotechnology and investment in geographical sciences for improved natural resource management, and continued expansion of basic infrastructure telecommunications, transportation, energy, and irrigation.

Prof Juma goes on to underscore the importance of improved technical education, especially for women.

Nanotechnology, he says, can be used to quickly and effectively detect and treat crop diseases.

“…Africa has abundant arable land and labor which, with an agreed common approach and sound policies, could translate into greater production, incomes and food security…

“By focusing on women and rural prosperity, Africa would create a more inclusive agricultural revolution.

“An African agricultural revolution is within reach, provided the continent can focus on supporting small-scale farmers to help meet national and regional demand for food,” he says.

Prof Juma continues: “With its vast untapped resources, Africa enjoys tremendous potential and opportunities but remains characterised by persistent food shortages, which may be worsened by climate change unless efforts to change direction are stepped up.

“One way for Africa to foster inclusive economic growth is to apply innovation in agriculture which employs the majority of the people. This is also a way to address concerns that technology widens the gap between the rich and the poor.”


Small is Big


One UN report says supporting smallholder farmers is one of the quickest ways to not only guarantee food security, but to also lift people out of poverty in a sustainable manner.

“… smallholders manage approximately 500 million small farms (globally) and provide over 80 percent of the food consumed in large parts of the developing world, particularly Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, thus contributing to food security and poverty reduction,” the report says.

The UN Environment Programme in conjunction with the World Conservation Monitoring Centre and the International Fund for Agricultural Development say, “Given the right enabling conditions and targeted support, these often-neglected farmers can transform the rural landscape and unleash a new and sustainable agricultural revolution.”

The report is titled “Smallholders, Food Security and the Environment”.

“Sustainable agricultural intensification   scaling up farming practices that maintain the resources base upon which smallholders depend so that it continues to support food security and rural development   can be the answer to enhanced food security, environmental protection and poverty reduction. 

Smallholder farmers have a key role to play in this process,” the report says.

August 2013
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