Food and Water

5 ways that free trade can boost sustainable agriculture in Africa

Harris Njuki, 65, a farmer walks at his genetically modified pest resistant Bt cotton variety farm, in Kimbimbi village of Kirinyaga county, Kenya, Africa on November 30, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Unleashing the full potential of Africa's agricultural sector would have wide-ranging social, economic and environmental benefits. Image: Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Adam Amoussou
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  • Africa could become the world's powerhouse, particularly with the African Continent Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) seeking to remove trade barriers.
  • AfCFTA is key to implementing the Agenda 2063 goals, which include healthy citizens and modern agriculture for increased productivity and production.
  • Here are five focus areas to drive the Africa's agriculture and food production from potentiality to sustainability by leveraging the benefits of the AfCFTA.

Africa has the potential to become the world’s powerhouse in the coming years.

The continent is undergoing unprecedented changes, with the implementation of the African Continent Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) – which aims to eliminate trade barriers and boost intra-African trade – projected to represent a single market of 1.7 billion people and $6.7 trillion in consumer and business spending for the region by 2030.

AfCFTA is widely seen as a key step in implementing the Africa Union’s Agenda 2063, which aspires to create a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development. This includes specific goals such as creating a high standard of living for all citizens, a healthy and well-nourished populace and modern agriculture for increased productivity and production.

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According to the African Development Bank (AfDB) the food and agriculture market alone has the potential to increase from $280 billion a year in 2023 to $1 trillion by 2030. Indeed, the agriculture sector in Africa already contributes to 35% of the continent’s gross domestic product (GDP) and employs more than half of the working population.

However, despite its crucial role in the African economy, most of the farming systems are not sustainable. It’s therefore important to unleash Africa’s agricultural capacity, especially that of smallholder farmers, in order to meet local and international demand for food, create more jobs, expand intra-Africa trade and make Africa a continent of infinite opportunities.

Here are five focus areas to drive the continent’s food production from potentiality to sustainability by leveraging the benefits of the AfCFTA.

1. Social impact

Farmers' livelihoods should be the first priority towards achieving sustainability, and smallholder farmers especially must have better living conditions in the future than today. In addition, farmers must have access to reliable farm inputs and be equipped with skills, financial resources and technology for sustainable food production.

One company working towards achieving these aims is Ghana’s Farmerline, which partners with local agribusiness and multinational firms to enhance supply chain resilience through data. Its Mergdata platform enables smallholder farmers to access educational resources, supplies and credit, and also assists companies in managing supply chains by predicting harvests and ensuring the sustainability and quality of their purchases.

Impact investing should also be directed to women and youth, as studies have shown a huge improvement in productivity in every end-to-end value once women are in charge of agriculture.

After all, if farmers don't make their living sustainably, they will walk away from farming, with the biggest risk that the next generation of farmers don’t want to farm.

2. Economic impact

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Africa’s food and agriculture could be worth $1 trillion by the end of this decade. To pull off such prowess, it is imperative to make farmers more attractive to financial investment and make farming a more bankable business by de-risking investment in agriculture.

Achieving a sustainable economic impact implies investing more in initiatives that move farmers from conventional farming practices to regenerative ones – practices that result in an increase of productivity, and transformation to obtain value-added agriculture.

Freshafrika is an agritech company led by two African women using digital to bridge the gap between sustainably-produced nutritious African fruits and the rest of the world, in a bid to alleviate poverty, improve health and well-being and ensure responsible consumption and production.

Affordability is therefore key in the AfCFTA single market of 1.7 billion people. Every consumer must have access to nutritious food with no additional cost. With such market size it is also important to leverage on the comparative and competitive advantages of the member states.

3. Environmental impact

Africa is endowed with a large diversity of soil, local crops and climatic conditions to which farm inputs must be adapted accordingly to deliver optimal crop yields and enhance farmers’ income.

Promoting low carbon initiatives in agriculture and nature positive practices, prioritizing soil health, avoiding extensive agriculture and deforestation, and embarking on the right type of fertiliser use, produced in a sustainable way adapted to African soil will all play a key role in building a sustainable food systems across the continent.

Farmers’ life revolves around the cycle of production which, in turn, is determined by weather becoming more and more unpredictable. It’s therefore crucial to empower farmers to better adapt to climate changes and their implementation of climate risk mitigation.

Virtual Irrigation Academy, or VIA, for example, has developed a suite of user-friendly, low-cost and accurate colour-based tools designed for smallholder farmers and irrigators to manage their water and fertilizer usage more effectively and sustainably and is currently being used in several African countries, including Malawi.

Other innovations are currently emerging and being implemented across Africa with the goal of producing more food with less land. It is truly a green revolution.

4. Technology innovation

Africa has been leaning towards technology innovation in food production these past years. An important way to unlock Africa’s agricultural potential, especially that of smallholder farmers, is to develop and deploy accessible and affordable digital agritech tools.

As highlighted above, technology enhances every stage of food production. Making great use of digital farming technologies and online environments improve sustainable use of resources and impact farmers livelihood.

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The digitalization of trade processes throughout the African continent will exponentially multiply the AfCFTA potential and break every barrier to intra-African trade.

Impact investment must be directed toward digital technologies to improve farmers’ livelihood, to contribute to the economic impact of food production and to incentivize climate smart farming.

5. Collaboration between food systems stakeholders

The success of any goal would be impossible without cooperation between multiple public and private stakeholders from across the food value chain.

To produce food, farmers deal with many government divisions – land and water affairs, forestry and fisheries, environment and more – as well as many other stakeholders such as input suppliers, transport companies, commodity brokers etc.

This highlights the need for government cooperation considering the scale of investment for some of the infrastructure projects, as technology innovation is set to play a big role in food production and the movement of goods and services across the AfCFTA.

Food production is key to Africa’s sustainability

Africa’s food production sector is the main sector with huge potential to meet sustainable development goals. At the same time, Africa’s population is forecast to grow by one billion people by 2050, making access to affordable and nutritious food the number one priority.

To tap into the infinite opportunities offered by leveraging the AfCFTA requires putting farmers, especially smallholder farmers' livelihoods, at the centre of every decision-making.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to help ensure global food security?

It is necessary for food production to be economically and environmentally impactful. Farmers and every other food stakeholder must have access to affordable technology innovation and cooperate to achieve the AfCFTA Agenda 2063 goals.

The full implementation of the AfCFTA agreement is projected to increase intra-African trade in agriculture by 574% by 2030. However, the potential benefits to African countries will only be realized if governments eliminate tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade which will incentivize businesses to embrace and utilize the agreement.

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