What it will take to feed Africa—and the world—in the coming decades

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Africa’s population is set to double by 2050. Knowing the continent’s ability to feed its current population of over 1.3 billion people “is weak, how are we going to feed 2.6 [billion]?” asked Ibrahim Mayaki, the African Union special envoy for food systems.

Mayaki outlined solutions to that challenge during Atlantic Council in New York, in a discussion hosted by the Council’s Africa Center and the Policy Center for the New South on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Mayaki joined Cary Fowler—the US State Department’s special envoy for global food security—who argued that any solution will need to “focus on the smallholder farmer” to be effective.

On Monday, the United States and Norway unveiled a new seventy-million-dollar fund to provide financing for farmers and small- and medium-sized agricultural businesses in Africa “to try to de-risk some of the risks that are inherently” embedded in Africa’s agricultural sector, as Fowler explained.

“There is a consensus on the necessity to protect the small-scale farmers,” Mayaki said, adding that because these farmers “produce 80 percent of the food we eat,” empowering them would be a “huge boost” to the continent’s development.

Below are more highlights from the event, which was moderated by Africa Center Senior Director Rama Yade and Senior Fellow Aubrey Hruby and featured the launch of a new issue brief on the promise of agritech by the Africa Center and the Policy Center for the New South.

Read the issue brief

Issue Brief

Sep 19, 2023

Unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential

By Aubrey Hruby and Fatima Ezzahra Mengoub

The ongoing digital revolution in Africa presents a valuable opportunity to revolutionize the continent’s food systems.

Africa Economy & Business

Innovative solutions

  • In addition to rising food prices, the war in Ukraine has “increased food insecurity” in Africa, said Yade, adding that “weak local infrastructure” and “the lowest levels of [agricultural] productivity” only make matters worse.
  • In July, Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which allowed Ukrainian food exports to continue during wartime. But even when the agreement was in place, it benefited Europe “much more” than Africa, Mayaki said, “because we got very little percentage of the grains that were supposed to come” to the continent. This, coupled with Africa’s supply-chain struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic, showed Mayaki “that it’s important for Africa to count on itself… first” for food security.
  • But “there’s no such thing as food security in a land where the soil is degraded… or where the crops are [not yet adapted] to climate change,” Fowler warned. “Unless we begin to start building the soils and adapting the crops, we’re going to run into real trouble.”
  • “If you look into the future, you’ll see that there’s a need to produce 50 to 60 percent more food in Africa” by 2050, Fowler said; but projections based on current trajectories, he warned, indicate that for some crops, “the yield will be even smaller than it is today.”
  • Fowler said that in continuing to support Africa’s food systems, the US government is looking to build food systems “in a sustainable way” that is going to be resilient to climate change. It is now working with the AU and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization on an initiative to identify traditional indigenous crops that offer the most nutritional value—and that can grow in a climate-changed world.
  • Mayaki said that fragmentation across the AU’s fifty-five countries is holding back the agricultural industry’s development. “We must push for regional policies” that allow countries to specialize in what they’re strongest in, effectively creating continental “food baskets” that trade effectively and attract investors, he argued.
  • Policies will also need to be “holistic,” he added, in that they will need to tackle agricultural issues alongside trade, infrastructure, and even governance challenges—for example, land tenure policies. “We will not be able to feed” the African population “if we do not think holistically,” Mayaki said.

The next frontier

  • Hruby said that the digital revolution currently underway in Africa offers a “game-changing opportunity” to implement potentially transformative agritech solutions for the “hundreds of millions of smallholder farmers” who are currently operating “at suboptimal and unproductive” levels across the continent.
  • Agritech offers a way to improve agricultural productivity without demanding more resources, explained Fatima Ezzahra Mengoub, a senior economist at the Policy Center for the New South—and co-author of the newly launched agritech issue brief. But, she added, the technology must be accessible and fitting for each local context.
  • Eli Pollak, chief executive officer of Apollo Agriculture, discussed how Apollo helps farmers access needed credit—which is important particularly for women farmers who may not have collateral for bank loans. According to Ezzahra Mengoub, women contribute between 60 and 80 percent of total food production in Africa.
  • Niraj Varia, the chief executive officer of iProcure, which digitizes rural supply chains, advocated for building up digital infrastructure across the continent to make sure that farmers can better access the materials and equipment they need. Cameron Alford, vice president of the Department of Compact Operations at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, said that working with African governments will be important in identifying and implementing solutions, as “country ownership is an important part of the model.”
  • Highlighting the solutions that are growing in Africa has helped shape a more positive vision for investors and supporters, said Mayaki. “We are out of the negative narrative.”

Katherine Walla is an associate director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.

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Further reading

Related Experts: Katherine Walla, Rama Yade, and Aubrey Hruby

Image: Horticulture farmer Prosper Chikwara walks through his green pepper field under irrigation outside Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, February 25, 2019. Photo via Thomson Reuters Foundation/Busani Bafana.