Food systems in Africa

Market Women at Sikasso Market Women at Sikasso

When responding to challenges within the food system in Africa one is confronted by multiple contradictory perspectives. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) report of 2008 highlighted the importance of African small and family farmers as well as the critical role of indigenous knowledge. The IAAST report was diametrically opposite to the World Bank’s World Development Report of 2007 which called for the industrialisation of agriculture, larger, consolidated farms and out-grower models, to name but a few. In the agricultural input space, the global trend of consolidation continues with fewer and fewer seed and fertiliser suppliers active (see, Thu, 2009; Ha-Joon, 2008).

Larger international retail supermarket firms are literally on the march in many African countries, particularly in Southern and East Africa. South Africa leads this charge where there are just over 16,000 South Africans per store. The African average is just over 151, 000 people per store (Vink, 2013:12). This is, however, changing with new stores opening on a daily basis. This retail march impacts on a wide variety of other food system activities including the crowding out of more traditional wet markets (Weatherspoon and Reardon, 2003) and changes to agricultural production and farm sizes (Reardon and Timmer, 2007).

As a consequence of the global transitions, other food system related issues are evident. The move to cities is precipitating a nutrition transition (Popkin, 2002) where urban lifestyles, changing gender roles and aspirational eating all impacts on diets. The statistics from the 2013 FAO State of Food Security Report reflect increasing obesity and overweight statistics, but with childhood stunting showing no decline, despite declines in all other global regions (FAO, 2013). The disability-adjusted life year (DALY) comparison between 1990 and 2010, by the malnutrition-related risk factor, showed improvements in most categories, excepting obesity and overweight, which increased (FAO 2013: 18).

While conflict zones experience dire and chronic hunger, food insecurity remains a persistent challenge throughout the rest of Africa. By way of an example, in Sub-Saharan Africa between 1990 and 2002 the number of undernourished people grew from 169 million to 206 million (Crush and Frayne, 2010). The locus of this food security is however changing. The African Food Security Urban Network, investigating food insecurity in poor urban areas in predominantly Sub-Saharan countries found that over 77 per cent of the respondents were food insecure (Frayne et al, 2010: 49).

Table 1: Old and emerging food system analyses

Focus “Old” food security analysis Emerging sustainable food analysis
Core concern Under-production Mismatch of production, consumption and policy
Route to food security Produce more Redesign food system for sustainability, defined by multiple criteria: social, environmental and economic
Analysis of 2007–8 crisis


A sudden crisis caused by external shocks (e.g. banking and oil price crises) then exacerbated by national tariffs and export controls A long-running failure coming to a head exposing new complex combination of factors straining an already stretched food system; a forewarning of a possible coming ‘perfect storm’
Preferred action Improved coordination among international food bodies; better information exchange on national production levels and food stocks Begin twin-track short- and long-term reorientation of food supply and consumption patterns better to align environment, health and inter- and intra-society inequalities; rebuild buffer stocks as safety net
Conception of health Malnutrition and hunger A wide range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including malnutrition
Environmental concerns Primarily on farm Throughout supply chain
Where waste lies At farm and distribution Throughout the system, particularly consumption
Consumer issues Under-consumption Over-, under- and mal-consumption
Energy focus Land use for energy generation Carbon emissions through food chains
Geographical hotspots Low-income developing countries Global (markets are distorted by high-income countries)
Economic approach Generate efficient supply Need to internalize full costs
Role of science Agricultural R&D, mainly life sciences Social as well as natural sciences
Locus of power Mainly Government but also commercial interests Concerned about split between private governance (commerce) and government; international institutions and regimes; global governance

(Source: Lang and Barling, 2012:


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