Africa is well-known for the tremendous economic and social challenges faced by its people, but also for its great economic and human potential. The challenges, opportunities and dynamism that characterize the continent today are especially evident in Africa’s food system.
Millions still struggle for subsistence on a few staple food commodities, especially in Africa’s rural and refugee populations. At the same time, the Green Revolution has arrived on the continent, with drought-resistant crops and other innovations enhancing the livelihoods of many millions of smallholder farmers. Africa’s emerging middle class demands a wide array of higher quality and value-added foods and patronizes modern supermarkets. And African farmers and food companies are seeking and gradually gaining access to growing regional and export markets.
Certainly, Africa’s food security challenge is deep seated, and gaps in governance and other social infrastructure abound. But the positive change underway in Africa’s agriculture and food sector – and the promise of its future – are driven by economic and social forces that are unlikely to turn back.
These realities have led African policymakers increasingly to see the future of the continent through the lens of the food system. African governments and the African Union are prioritizing food security, including good nutrition, in their development strategies; and, through the Malabo Declaration and the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), they have recognized the central role that market-driven agriculture and value added agri-businesses must play in Africa’s development and in the struggle to achieve food security for all its people.
Africa’s food system also has the attention of those outside the continent who look at the global food system from a long-term perspective. As the world’s food needs rapidly expand in the next several decades, food producers and consumers from around the globe will almost certainly be looking to sub-Saharan Africa, which contains sixty percent of Earth’s unfarmed arable land.
Food Safety is the Foundation for Food System Success
What has this got to do with food safety? Food safety is, of course, a fundamental social value in its own right and a persistent challenge worldwide, substantially affecting public health, food security and the productivity of the population. The World Health Organization estimates that globally 420,000 people die and 600 million fall ill annually from foodborne hazards. The highest incidence per capita is in Africa – totaling an estimated 91,000 deaths and 127 million illnesses annually – with the heaviest burden of disease falling on children under five. Certainly, much needs to be done in Africa to reduce the prevalence of such illness and mitigate its public health and economic impacts.
But strengthened assurances of food safety in Africa are also a prerequisite for market access and commercial success in today’s global food system, whether in Africa’s urban and regional markets or in markets outside Africa. As a result, food safety is coming to the fore among African leaders and institutions as a major development and economic issue, as well as a public health concern.
Attention to food safety has also stemmed from its relevance to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. The first three of the seventeen SDGs – reducing poverty, achieving food security, and improving health – address Africa’s most fundamental needs and are all intended outcomes of Africa’s agriculture-led development strategy, for which food safety is foundational. Food safety is not the most important factor in achieving any one of these key SDG’s, but it directly and significantly affects achievement of all three of them.
Some recent initiatives have addressed local public health impacts of food safety problems – most notably the impact of aflatoxin-contaminated maize, groundnuts and other staple commodities on child nutrition and stunting and the long-term burden of liver cancer among adults. But much of the recent interest has been driven by food safety’s role in Africa’s economic development strategy, on which the health and well-being of Africa’s people ultimately depends.
This strategy means shifting millions of African farmers from subsistence to commercial agriculture and enabling many small and medium size food businesses to access more formal urban and regional markets in Africa and global markets outside the continent. And this is where some of the significant gaps in Africa’s food safety capacity have become acutely evident.
The Community is Responding to Africa’s Capacity Building Challenge
Collaborative initiatives like the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) are providing an essential basis for capacity building in African food safety systems.
Africa is elevating its focus on food safety at the same time that consumer demands and globalization of the food system are driving the world broadly toward elevated and harmonized food safety standards and modern practices to verify compliance. This process is affecting farmers and food companies worldwide and ultimately protects food consumers. But the elevation of standards potentially puts at a competitive disadvantage many food producers in Africa and other developing regions, where the capacity to meet those standards is often lacking.
In many African countries, the capacity gap includes the lack of such fundamentals as effective public policies and institutions to provide regulatory oversight; insufficient extension services, research, and other technical assistance for food producers; too few trained people to carry out food safety activities in both the public sector and in small-and-medium-size enterprises (SME’s); and lack of cold chain facilities, food testing laboratories and other physical infrastructure.
The good news is that many organizations in the international development community, African governments, and the food industry recognize these gaps and are supporting capacity building to fill them. These include the Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP), the World Bank, the UN agencies (FAO, WHO and UNIDO), the STDF at the World Trade Organization, and the CGIAR centers in Africa (ILRI and IITA). It also includes major bilateral donor agencies in the US, Europe, and Japan and key African institutions, such as the African Union, the African Development Bank, and the African regional economic communities. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested in African food safety, as have global and regional food manufacturers and retailers through their internal supply management work and collaborative initiatives by the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), Partners in Food Solutions, and company foundations.
All of this interest in food safety is positive and highly encouraging, but, without question, the amount of capacity building investment needed in Africa far outstrips current efforts. Practitioners in the field also widely recognize that current efforts are fragmented and not as strategic, synergistic or impactful as they could be. This makes it imperative not only to mobilize more resources, but also better target, prioritize and coordinate both public and private efforts to build Africa’s food safety capacity.
GFSP Project to Map and Analyze Current Efforts
The Global Food Safety Partnership (GFSP) is a public-private initiative, hosted at the World Bank, and dedicated to promoting and supporting global cooperation for food safety capacity building. Partners include private multinationals, intergovernmental organizations, government agencies, and industry organizations. The GFSP convenes stakeholders, assesses food safety systems, and proposes systems-based interventions to prioritize and address specific food sector needs.
In furtherance of GFSP’s mission, I’m leading a project that will support improvement in the quantity and quality of food safety capacity building in sub-Saharan Africa by mapping and evaluating current efforts by over 30 donor, development and industry organizations. It will also recommend ways to build a more integrated and strategic effort, including more robust public-private collaboration.
The GFSP-funded project, additionally supported by contributions from Cargill, Mars and Walmart, builds on the fact that the widely-shared goal of food safety can unify disparate groups and foster collaboration that maximizes benefits for all. In this spirit, the project is being conducted in consultation with the African Union (AU) Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture, AU-IBAR, FAO, WHO, OIE, UNIDO, the Standards and Trade Development Facility at the WTO, USAID, and the Canadian Food Safety Inspection Agency (CFIA).
The project report will help these and other institutions, including importantly Africa-based governments, regional organizations and businesses, understand who is supporting what projects in what countries for what food safety purpose; what hazards and what value chains are targeted; what markets are affected (local, regional, export); and the extent to which current projects are coordinated or aligned coherently for maximum sustainable impact. This information is the foundation for improving strategic planning, integration and coordination of capacity building initiatives and investments.
I’m leading this project as a consultant to the GFSP. The lead researcher is Dr. Corey Watts, also a GFSP consultant, and we are working in close collaboration with Dr. Delia Grace, the outstanding CGIAR food safety leader, and her team at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya.
The dreams we have of plentiful, nutritious and safe food for Africa’s people cannot come true without a global partnership of people, organizations and nations who share that dream. To learn more about our work and opportunities to participate, please reach out to us.
I’m leading this project as a consultant to the World Bank. The lead researcher is Dr. Corey Watts, also a World Bank consultant, and we are working in close collaboration with Dr. Delia Grace, the outstanding CGIAR food safety leader, and her team at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya.
This post was written and contributed by:
Michael R. Taylor
Dr. Delia Grace
International Livestock Research Institute
Dr. Corey Watts
GFSP/World Bank Consultant