Regional cooperation: A solution to Africa’s food crisis?

Brussels, 16 October 2008: In the 7th Brussels Development Briefing on rising food prices, Cris Muyunda presented how COMESA aims to improve food security in Eastern and Southern Africa.

He argued that the current high food prices pose a heavy burden on COMESA Member States. Studies show that a 10% increase in food prices lead to a 2.3% increase in poverty. Further, the high prices could affect the political situation, and endanger peace and security. On the other hand, the high food prices could lead to an overall economic growth in agricultural led economies (agriculture accounts for 32% of COMESA’s GDP) where just 15% overall growth could take six million people from poverty.

Since 2004, the food security situation in the 19 COMESA has improved. In 2006/07, only two Member States experienced food deficits, while the whole region had a food surplus. Malawi can be seen as a particular success story. Since the serious food deficit in 2004/05, the government has implemented a programme with three key measures: fertilizer subsidies, an increased budget for agriculture, and a comprehensive focus not only on food security, but including irrigation, fertilizer and marketing. This led to a food surplus in 2006/07.

In general, COMESA has responded in various ways to the rising food prices:

  • It has acceleratedregional economic integration, culminating in the Customs Union in 2008.
  • The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) focusses on four pillars: land and water management, trade and marketing infrastructure, food and nutrition security, and agricultural research and technology adoption.
  • There is a joint regional plan against the food crisis, including supply of inputs to accelerate food commodity production, improved risk management and vulnerability analysis and enhanced regional market access.
  • ACTESA is a regional alliance which aims to develop efficient and effective regional markets for staple foods. It is a multi-partner initiative led by COMESA; it arose through the recognition that the growing structural food deficits in staple foods cannot be met indefinitely by food aid.

Further, he underlined some of the challenges to food security in Eastern and Southern Africa:

  • Many Member States are landlocked and island countries, which is why transport corridors are central. However, the region suffers from a lack of diversified transport and poor physical connectivity. There are only 60 kilometers of paved road per million people, whereas India has 1000 kilometers, and Western European countries 20.000.
  • Unstable energy supply is also an obstacle, which is why he advocated that countries “aggressively explore” alternative energy sources such as hydro-power, biofuels, and nuclear energy.

Summing up, is regional trade the answer to food security problems? Muyunda is convinced that it is only part of the answer. Africa needs a comprehensive response, including regional trade, services to farmers (e.g. financial assistance or market information), and commercial integration of producers by, for example, strengthening producer associations, and educating and training farmers.

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