A report launched by the Africa Food Systems Forum in September 2023 has lamented that targets set by African countries to meet food production and trade demands remain “far-fetched.”

This is because of what the forum says are underlying challenges that have historically held back the potential of the continent’s vast natural resources.

Agencies have reported that while agriculture produces up to 35 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product, the continent remains food insecure.

Other sources estimate Africa’s annual food import bill at aroundUSD78 billion, showing the challenges the continent faces to turn the corner towards feeding itself and also being a net food producer.

This is happening even as the continent’s development partners continue pouring billions into the sector, and at a time when hunger has become a common trend from Cape to Cairo.

The Africa Food Systems Forum says the continent must move from relying on smallholder farmers to promoting large-scale agrifood projects.

This, however, should not mean the exclusion of smallholders in the continent’s food production ecosystem, the forum says.

According to a communique issued after the Forum’s summit: “Governments have a crucial role to play in this by taking responsibility for the creation of a regulatory environment supportive of a substantially expanded agricultural sector in Africa. The shift towards large-scale agriculture, however, must not come at the expense of small-scale farmers, who are an integral part of Africa’s agricultural landscape.

“In addition to overcoming structural obstacles to production, planning needs to be pragmatic, focusing on large-scale agrifood projects, developing bankable business cases, and managing investment risks to create an environment attractive to private sector investors,” the Forum added.

The Africa Development Bank says the continent’s agriculture sector has the potential to increase from the current USD280 billion annually to USD1trillion by 2030, but agencies say this is being hampered by factors that include climate change and poor financing and investment in the sector.

This is even though, under the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), African Union member states committed to a minimum of 10 percent of their government expenditure toward agriculture.

There are concerns however that the bulk of African countries have yet to breach 5 percent of that target, with national budgets routinely prioritising sectors such as defence.

At the World Food Summit in Rome, it was noted that African agriculture faces a multitude of challenges that include climate change, wars, the high cost of farming inputs and a lack of comprehensive research on soil science.

Africa has not been spared by the war in Ukraine, agencies say, which has “increased food insecurity” while “weak local infrastructure” has only “made matters worse”.

The World Food Programme has also said conflict is the biggest driver of hunger, and Africa has seen its fair share of such conflicts which have resulted in the disruption of farming activities.

Because of this, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 is pushing for accelerated agricultural growth, but other researchers have warned that: “Although such global and pan-African statements of intent are crucial, they must be followed by concrete national regulations and policies if African agriculture is to attract the scale of investment required to become a net exporter of food.”

According to the IFAD, Africa’s lack of capacity to feed itself has also been worsened by post-harvest losses, with the agency reporting that it has left African farmers in countries such as Rwanda to lodge losses of over 400 percent.

This has highlighted the multipronged challenges the continent faces, despite the Food Forum’s assertion that there is potential to produce enough to address long-running food deficits.

Amidst all this, researchers at the African Union say Africa needs to produce between 50 and 60 percent or even more of what it is currently producing, but add that because there remain factors such as climate change and other issues that remain unaddressed: “The yield for some crops will even be smaller than it is today.”

The continent’s concerns were perhaps summed up best by Tanzania’s agriculture minister, Hussein Mohamed Bashe, during an African Development Bank food sovereignty and resilience event in September. He said: “Africa has to wash away the shame of not being able to feed itself.”