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How Africa can help feed the world. What's needed for true food security

Africa has the potential to be a major player in global food networks and relieve a lot of stress on global food security.

Africa has the potential to be a major player in global food networks and relieve a lot of stress on global food security. Image: OCP group

Mostafa Terrab
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, OCP Group
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Food security - amid climate change - is a massive challenge for our fast-growing global population.
  • Africa has the potential to be a major player in global food networks and relieve a lot of stress on global food security.
  • Protecting its soil - through technology, fertilizer and other methods - will have knock-on effects for yields, biodiversity, hunger and more.

We meet at a defining moment for humanity. Someone, somewhere in the world, has just welcomed the eighth billion human on the planet. That baby’s life will be shaped by our collective success in the fight against climate change while having to feed a growing global population. Ensuring food security for all while protecting the planet for generations to come is not an option. It’s a global imperative.

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As a Moroccan company, we know this challenge is especially acute on our home continent. By 2050 Africa’s population is expected to nearly double. At the same time, the continent’s fragile biomes are disproportionately impacted by climate change. That makes accelerating the transition to sustainable, smarter farming even more urgent.

Presently, African farmers use, on average, just 20 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare, a fraction of the global average. To maximize yields per acre, it is estimated that local farmers will need to increase their fertilizer application by around tenfold. Doing this in a sustainable way - without longer-term environmental damage - will be crucial. Not just for the continent, but the globe as well: with 60% of the world’s remaining arable land, Africa’s vast, fertile soils represent humanity’s best hope for future food security.

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To address the immediate challenges of food insecurity prompted by skyrocketing commodity prices and export disruptions, stakeholders need to agree on urgent remedial actions. Any long-term solution to global food security and sustainable agriculture begins with the soil. Soil health is not only about preserving life beneath our feet. It makes all life above ground possible, from plants to people. An approach to farming that emphasizes soil health and customized fertilization for sustainable high yields is key to reducing agriculture’s carbon footprint. This is a win-win: healthier soil and enhanced biodiversity actively suck harmful carbon from the atmosphere, while maximizing yields per acre reduces pressure globally to convert forests and grasslands to agriculture.

Technology is global, but innovation is local. Soil characteristics and growing conditions vary widely, not only globally but even within each continent, country, and region. This calls for a new approach to crop nutrition that shifts from commoditized products to customized crop nutrients that are adapted to different crops and soils, and applied at the right time.

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Delivering these is entirely possible in Africa using established “precision farming” techniques which observe, measure, and respond to changes in fields and crops. For example, mobile laboratories are already crossing Africa collecting soil samples covering millions of hectares. With this data, farmers can map which parcels of land require what type of nourishment and when. More efficient application of the right fertilizer – only what the specific soil and crop needs and will use -- reduces waste and run-off into ground and surface water. It also lowers costs while boosting yields per acre and, therefore, farmer incomes. African farmers are just as capable and eager as farmers anywhere in the world to increase their yields in a sustainable manner. They just need access to the right inputs, supply chains, financial tools, and innovations.

Speeding up this farming revolution will require substantial collective effort. Thankfully, there is growing awareness and commitment from a broad range of international partners – national governments, international and regional institutions, the private sector, universities, and others – who firmly believe African farmers can play a key role in feeding the world while protecting the planet. There is much work left to do. But having a goal is not just noble - it is necessary.

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World Economic Forum

May 21, 2024

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