Safe food for Africa’s growing domestic and regional markets, innovations to support food safety compliance, and responding to consumer needs and expectations. These issues were all discussed in a very topical debate on food safety in Africa. The 52nd Brussels Briefing “Food Safety: a critical part of the food system in Africa” marks an important shift in focus towards food safety in the local context, whilst also recognising the achievements made by Africa’s producers in accessing international markets.

Food safety is a serious issue in Africa, a continent where up to a third of the global foodborne disease deaths occur. News headlines about the listeriosis outbreak and other food scandals have put this issue into sharp relief, highlighting it as a serious domestic concern, especially for consumers.

Speaking at the Briefing, policymakers, experts and producer representatives agreed that more needs to be done to understand the food safety landscape in Africa and address emerging opportunities to tackle this issue – including blockchain technology, booming urban food demand, and the regional markets being pursued through the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA). This action is needed to ensure that successful approaches continue to be developed and scaled up, given that foodborne diseases are an ever-evolving threat.

During the introduction to the Briefing and the opening remarks, made by Isolina Boto (CTA), Viwanou Gnassounou (ACP Secretariat), Leonard Mizzi (European Commission), Michael Hailu (CTA) and Lystra N. Antoine (GFSP), a strong emphasis was placed on the relationship between food safety, food security and sustainable development. Achieving food security for a growing population in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), will require African countries and their partners to invest in improving food safety standards and enforcement, with a strong emphasis on using innovations that can apply to local contexts, which are often characterised by their informality. Food safety and standards were also singled out as some of the most important topics that will face African policymakers in the context of the CFTA and in promoting intra-regional trade, as highlighted in the  2018 Africa Agriculture Trade Monitor (AATM).

According to Lystra N. Antoine “to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, food safety has to be front and central”. Leonard Mizzi pointed out that “this is a topic which is quite cross-cutting – there are trade implications, agriculture implications, public health implications.” Recognition was given to the specific challenges that Africa faces in terms of food safety. “Clearly today, the issue of food safety is also a local issue,” noted Viwanou Gnassounou, “when you look at recent progress with regards the Continental Free Trade Area in Africa…one of the major challenges will be standards and food safety.” He went on to add that “food safety and food security often get confused, but I think they go hand in hand”. Echoing this sentiment was Michael Hailu, who recalled that “there is no food security without food safety.” As such, “one of the areas that CTA has been trying to support the African Union Commission is to try and include food safety within the biennial review in the Malabo Process, including for building capacity and an electronic platform.”

Researchers, development partners and policymakers have been making concerted efforts to clarify the food safety situation in Africa, and the rewards of these endeavours were presented for the Briefing. During the first panel, Lystra N. Antoine highlighted key messages from the Global Food Safety Partnership study “Food Safety in Africa: Past Endeavors and Future Directions”, which mapped the initiatives and interventions that have been made on this subject. Her argument for a greater consideration to be taken of the health burden posed by foodborne diseases was repeated by Kristina Roesel of Freie Universität Berlin and ILRI, and further reflected on in the remarks made by Michael Scannell, from DG Sante in the European Commission. The panel emphasised that protecting public health should be a priority in the regulation of food safety, over and above ensuring market access, and this consumer based approach should apply throughout the value chain. However, food safety regulation should also be informed by scientific evidence, and greater harmonisation and coordination was needed in this field, both at continental level through CAADP and internationally, by the donor community.

“We actually have found that many of the standards have been copied directly from the European context, some of them are dated back to the 1960’s, so they are really not feasible within the local context in Africa” argued Kristina Roesel.  She further emphasised the importance of having new policies informed by robust scientific evidence, including in terms of understanding “the drivers of consumers in changing food safety”. Michael Scannell pointed out that in the EU, “citizens demand extremely high levels of food safety, and in turn they put pressure on politicians to ensure food is safe, and they in turn put pressure on civil servants to ensure that regulatory systems are in place, working with Members States and the private sector”. Therefore, “it is only when citizens in Africa demand extremely high standards in relation to food safety that you will see the kind of progress seen in Europe.” This issue was especially relevant in the context of regional integration, he added.

The link between food safety and trade is nevertheless critical, especially on the production and distribution side, as Africa’s agribusinesses want a larger slice of the growing food market – whether it be domestic, regional or global, formal or informal. This was roundly acknowledged by most of the presenters, and successful approaches to enable producers and the private sector to improve food safety were shared by Morag Webb (PIP-COLEACP), and Kelley Cormier (USAID) Elizabeth Nsimadala (EAFF) and Chris Muyunda (CAADP Non State Actors Coalition) in the second panel. A delicate balance has to be achieved which encourages compliance by the private sector with food safety rules, whilst at the same time, enabling producers to maintain their livelihoods, particularly those who operate in the informal sector. Elizabeth Nsimadala, who is also a successful entrepreneur, put a strong emphasis on the need for incentives for producers to comply with food safety rules, as the benefits can be rewarding, a point mirrored by the Briefing’s presenters.

“For a better understanding of the African agriculture system, I don’t think you can say we have anything like formal when it comes to smallholder farmers,” argued Elizabeth Nsimadala. “These are farmers that are not organised in any way, so what we have been doing for some time is ensuring we aggregate these farmers into production and marketing units” using technologies like the EAFF’s innovative mobile platform, “eGranary”. Affordable technology is very important, as it can contribute to the production of safer food, but farmers will not see the value in adopting it if “there are no incentives for having safe food in the market”. Kelley Cormier further noted the food system in Africa is characterised by “low levels of public and private sector investment…a confusing and costly food safety system, diverse and changing diets”. However, Morag Webb put it to the audience that the successes of ACP countries in exporting food, including fresh produce, shows real progress in domestic food safety capacity and support from partners. However, “it is getting the progress that has been made in the high-end export sector, and actually achieving real impact for ACP consumers in local markets, which remains the biggest challenge.” The domestic food market in Africa continues to grow, and Chris Muyunda highlighted that “there is a real business opportunity for SMEs in food trade in Africa, as exemplified by the food import bill, but it is important to comply with the food safety requirement in order for us to realise that businesses opportunity”.

A common feature of the successful approaches presented by the speakers was their inclusivity and the “buy-in” achieved from all the actors across the value chain; each presentation made it clear that everybody – consumers, public and private sectors – have a stake and need to make a contribution towards ensuring that food is safe. This 52nd Briefing, which was organised by the ACP-EU Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), in collaboration with the European Commission (DG DEVCO & DG Health and Food Safety), the ACP Secretariat, CONCORD and the Global Food Safety Partnership, reflected a genuine will from across the board to carry on supporting the development of food safety in Africa.


More information

The 2018 Africa Agriculture Trade Monitor (AATM)

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