Why is Africa so "food insecure"? Doesn't it have some 400 million hectares of agricultural land waiting to be cultivated?
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Africa does not produce all the food it needs. In fact, as more Africans leave their rural villages and move into cities, more maize, rice, wheat and other staples have to be shipped in from outside the continent. The cost is huge -- well above $20 billion per year -- and demand is projected to double by 2020. Yet politicians tend to worry about this only during times of crisis, when the all-too-frequent drought or war unleashes those uncomfortable images in the media of sick children with bloated stomachs and hungry adults begging behind distribution trucks. By then, there is no alternative but to bring even more food from abroad. But, why is Africa so "food insecure"? Doesn't it have some 400 million hectares of agricultural land waiting to be cultivated?

A new report shows that the problem is mainly man-made -- you can't really blame fate or nature. It has to do with laws, regulations, policies and institutions that shut African farmers, especially small farmers, out of the urban centers where consumers are. [Mind you, that's even before you consider the old handicap that has held back agriculture in the region: a land ownership structure that makes it difficult for large agricultural enterprises to set up shop and deploy the kind of modern technology and equipment that small, individual farmers can rarely access.] The entire way from the farm to the kitchen table, red-tape, monopolies and corruption block food trade within Africa, even within each African country. Here is how.

First, each country has its own system to certify seeds -- and takes, on average, a couple of years to approve new varieties. Result: better seeds get stuck at the border, and local farmers are stuck with lower yields -- and sometimes without any seeds at all. Something similar is true for fertilizers, which in Burundi, Nigeria or Senegal can be five times more expensive than in Argentina, India or Turkey. To make matters worse, some African governments give away fertilizers or sell them below cost. Generous as that may sound, these schemes have mostly turned into political and fiscal nightmares, as waste and corruption make them virtually unaffordable.

Then comes the problem of carrying the produce to the market. In Africa, it can cost ten times more than in the average rich country to transport one ton of food one kilometer. Much of this is simply due to a lack of adequate roads -- the need for investment is enormous. But much also is due to monopolistic -- and usually politically connected -- trucking companies and "informal" checkpoints -- from Cameroon to Kenya, governments struggle to keep locals from setting up road-blocks and charging tolls. Is there any African country that has managed to cut through this Gordian knot and reduce transport prices? Yes, Rwanda did. Hats off to it.

But once farmers reach the border -- if they ever do -- their troubles really start. From one week to the next, food exports may be banned or taxed -- you may not know until you are about to cross. Or the country you are trying to enter may want you to prove where your products come from, or that they meet a sanitary standard which, you guessed it, is different from the one you had to meet back home. They may just want a bribe that would wipe out your, by now, meager profit. Or they may bluntly abuse their authority. How badly? Half of female cross-border traders in the Great Lakes region report to have been physically or sexually harassed by officials at the crossing points -- grim odds if you have to cross every week. If there is so much risk, why bother to trade food across countries in the first place? Only large, powerful traders can survive that. That's precisely the issue. Uncertainty and graft at customs agencies kill the benefits of food trade for Africa's smaller and poorer farmers, most of who are women.

This all points to the potential gains from African governments acting together to free food trade within the continent -- of taking "collective action" towards integration. A set of rules, standards and taxes that are stable, predictable and common across countries would go a long way to convince farmers that investing in food trade makes sense. And imagine the impact that a continent-wide "Charter of Basic Rights for Traders" could have. This is not as easy as it sounds -- it took decades for Europe to do it. But it is beginning to happen -- keep an eye on COMESA, the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa.

By some estimates, lifting barriers to food trade, from the farm to the market, could double Africa's production of cassava and rice, triple maize, millet and sorghum, and quintuple wheat. Think of how, in just five years, Thailand tripled its exports of cassava to other East Asian countries, and picture that success in African proportions. The region could indeed feed itself. That means higher income for farming families, a more secure food supply for city dwellers, and better opportunities for women. A win-win-win opportunity, which begs the question: Why has it not yet been done? Well, that brings us back to politics.

African governments have for years expressed their support for integration. Summits were held and grand free-trade agreements were signed. In some cases, customs unions were created within which people, goods and money are supposed to circulate unfettered -- these unions, on paper, still exist. There has been no lack of commitment in public. In practice, though, little has happened. Like any reform, freeing food trade within Africa will have winners and losers. The latter, which include intermediaries, favored companies and crooked civil servants, can stop change. The only antidote to this is a mix of enlightened leadership, participatory democracy, and lots of user-friendly information. In other words, it will take time but it will come.

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