THE Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has sounded the warning that this year’s food production projections for Africa are likely to be far lower than last year’s, with most regions expected to post reduced grain harvests.

In Southern Africa, cereal production is projected to decrease 17% owing to irregular seasonal rains and an extended dry spell, which has been described as the region’s worst in two decades.

Accounting for the bulk of the decrease is South Africa’s maize crop, for which production is forecast at 10.5 million tonnes, a steep 30% reduction compared to last year’s harvest.

Zambia and Malawi’s 2015 maize harvests are estimated to be 21 and 26% below 2014, and poor rains have severely impacted maize production in Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana and Swaziland, the declines ranging from 13 to 43%.

But the hardest-hit is likely to be import-dependent Zimbabwe, which gets the bulk of its grain from its neighbouring countries largely South Africa, Zambia and Malawi. Zimbabwe’s own maize output is expected to fall by a full 50%.

In East Africa, late and erratic rains since the start of the cropping season in March impaired the production outlook.

South Sudan is in a particularly dire place, with FAO highlighting “alarming” food security conditions in conflict-affected areas, where the number of severely food insecure people has almost doubled to an estimated 4.6 million since the beginning of 2015.

West Africa as a whole will experience a slight increase in production, but the mean obscures local food security issues, the FAO report says.

The latest estimates put the 2014 aggregate cereal production in the nine Sahelian countries at 21 million tonnes, about 7% higher than the five-year average, thanks to solid outputs in Mali and other coastal countries.

However, in the western Sahel, large drops in grain production has been recorded due to poor weather.

Compared to the five-year average, cereal production is estimated to have dropped in 2014 by 83% in Cape Verde, 28% in the Gambia, 33% in Guinea-Bissau and 17% in Senegal.

Large areas of Chad, Mauritania and Niger were also affected.

And although Central Africa is expected to have better than average rains, continuing civil insecurity in the Central African Republic is expected to negatively affect the current cropping season.

Strife in Burundi is also cause for concern, it notes – over 140,000 Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers have crossed over into neighbouring countries – Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania and Rwanda since the beginning of April, putting pressure on an already fragile ecosystem.

The trends on food will no doubt make African governments nervous. If they are paying attention to it; it has wider implications than are immediately apparent.

The World Economic Forum identifies food crises one of the biggest risks facing Africa in 2015, that governments haven’t paid enough attention to. Respondents were asked to select three global risks that they think their region is least prepared for, and food crises was ranked in second place, after unemployment  – and before spread of infectious diseases.

In May, US president Barack Obama conflated climate change, food security and terrorism, saying that under his administration, the Pentagon had begun identifying climate change as a “threat multiplier” in world conflicts.

Though he was careful not to put all the blame on climate change, Obama said that severe drought “helped create the instability in Nigeria that was exploited by the terrorist group Boko Haram,” and that drought, crop failures and high food prices helped fuel the early unrest in Syria, which descended into civil war in that region.

Four years ago, food was the principal factor driving the initial unrest in Egypt, as the Arab Spring was unfolding.

Egypt is the world’s biggest importer of wheat, and in 2010, a drought in Russia – Egypt’s main supplier of wheat – had killed 40% of the wheat harvest. North African governments largely subsidise the price of wheat, but even that wasn’t enough to keep the prices down – the Food Price Index had been rising since the beginning of 2009, and by the time it peaked in February 2011, the index had registered a 68.3% increase.

The Cereals Price Index rose an even sharper 75.5% in a shorter period of time, from a low in June 2010 to a high in April 2011. With that, masses took to the streets demanding bread, and the protests spiraled into a wider movement pressing for political and economic change.

Fortunately, international food prices aren’t (yet) a cause for alarm – FAO’s Food Price Index is now down 21% compared to a year ago, and is at its lowest level since September 2009.

The decline in the FAO FPI is mainly due to a drop 6.6% in the price of sugar and of 4.1% in the prices of dairy products, which more than offset a spike in palm oil and wheat quotations.

If Africa can access global markets to buy food and make up for looming poor harvests, then the risk of hunger can be averted. But the problem in the African context is that infrastructure and logistics is so poor that by the time food is imported and transported inland, the price advantage is wiped out.

One World Bank report indicated that along East Africa’s major transport corridors, there is a roadblock every 30-50 km. The bribes paid at the roadblocks and weigh bridges per truck ranged from $2.40 to $16.80, and adding costs of time delays to the costs of roadblocks, the prices of essential food staples increase significantly for local consumers.


This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Christine Mungai is a writer & journalist with Mail & Guardian Africa.

 Image: A drought-related cactus installation called “Desert of Cantareira”. REUTERS/Nacho Doce