Feeding Africa

Rising food prices and the link to political instability have been a core theme across global media in recent weeks, following the release of United Nations updated food price index in January. That was bad news; for seven consecutive months the index rose, in both real and nominal terms, to highest levels since records began in 1990. And the forecasts do not look good either Abdolreza Abbassian, a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation economist and grains expert, says “high prices are likely to persist in the months to come”.

So for us in the West a packet of pasta will almost certainly cost more but for people in low-income countries that are already suffering food shortages, the consequences are much worse – at best political unrest, at worst starvation. This Guardian story argues that soaring prices for staples such as grains over the past few months could be linked to the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia.

Certainly, many African countries are vulnerable to food price hikes. In Race for Race, a story I wrote for BBC Business News I argue that if African governments apply Vietnamese-type commitment to boosting rice yields along with improved post harvest techniques, they could be on the way to helping secure food security on the continent.  But there is some way to go. Although rice productivity in Africa has risen since 2007, in 2010 Africa still needed to import 40% of the rice it consumed. This accounts for about a third of what was available on international markets. But after the 2008 food crisis Burkina Faso boosted production by 241% and other countries like Benin, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Uganda all recorded double-digit increases in production.

With another looming food crisis looming and panic buying pushing food prices higher, as reported here by the Financial Times, African governments could do worse that to throw their weight behind improving local rice production. But rice should not be the only focus. Improving yields of other crops should be a priority too.

February 9. 2010

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