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Impact of regional infrastructure development on food security in Africa

Overview: causes of Africa’s food insecurity. This section makes the case that regional infrastructure development can play a key role toward improving food security in Africa. To understand the linkages between them, we need first to examine the main causes of food insecurity and why Africa is especially vulnerable to this risk.

Food insecurity arises primarily when (a) food production is constrained, for example by climatic conditions such as drought or floods; (b) when there is insufficient production in a particular area to feed the number of dependent population living there; and/or (c) when local food prices/imports are very high, which may be due to increases in fuel/transportation costs or to the vagaries of international commodity markets.

The food supply problems in Africa are exacerbated by the phenomenon of rapid urban expansion and the concentration of migration flows to regional capitals. Africa has the fastest growing population in the world – currently standing at about 6.8 billion, which is projected to double by 2050. Its urban population is also expanding more rapidly than any other region – at 3.3 percent a year. If current trends continue, by 2050 more than half the continent’s population will be living in cities. Agricultural productivity therefore needs to keep pace in order to feed the growing urban population.

However, rural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa ranks among the lowest in the developing world. This is caused by a broad spectrum of factors, including: extreme climatic conditions; the persistence of traditional methods of subsistence farming rather than using high-tech inputs and modern methods; and low investment in rural infrastructure, inter alia. The extreme climatic conditions that frequently afflict the continent often result in the loss of harvests and livestock, and this can lead to large scale famine and massive displacement of populations.

Conflicts affecting various African countries have also led to massive migrations of population to neighboring countries and to internally displaced people, which also causes severe food shortages and increased vulnerability.

Alongside these risks, Africa has to overcome another disbenefit. Its pattern of trade is characterized by a large-scale export of cash crops, together with the import of manufactured food commodities, which are subject to high price volatilities, further increasing the risk of food shortages.

When looking for root causes of the parlous state of Africa’s food security situation, one major deficit comes into stark relief – the poor and disconnected state of much of its infrastructure network. Subsistence rainfed farming provides livelihoods for most of the rural population, but it is mostly undertaken in remote areas without access to urban markets or to agricultural inputs (e.g. fertilizers, drought-resistant seeds). This constrains agricultural productivity on a large scale and prevents smallholders (most of whom are women) from transitioning from self-sufficiency to commercial farming, as a means of exiting poverty.

Although the continent may be characterized as being in a situation of chronic food deficit, more than 85 percent of the rural poor live on land that has a medium to high potential for increased productivity. If harnessed properly, this untapped potentiality could help to alleviate the chronic food security problem. The next section examines the deficits that typify Africa’s agricultural sector by comparison with developed countries. It seeks to draw out lessons to be learned from the structure of food supply chains in other countries.

2.2 Characteristics of Africa’s agricultural sector compared to developed countries

In other parts of the world, the food supply chain relies on multimodal and seamless transportation systems (namely, railroads, highways, ports and airports) that connect agricultural producers to major centers of consumption and export markets, via the commercial platforms of wholesale markets. In such countries, food crises are temporary and rare.

Indeed, the agricultural structure in developed countries comprises a chain of activities endowed with mechanized and intensive farming techniques; crop irrigation; high-technology inputs for example in the form of fertilizers, disease- and drought- resistant seeds, etc.; efficient transportation systems adapted to standardized storage conditions; industrial processing suitable for mass consumption; specialized site networks geared to handle food products; and well functioning marketing and distribution centers linking to major transportation corridors and export markets. The situation in Africa is very different at all stages of agricultural production, storage, and distribution, with the supply chains being generally underdeveloped and underfunded.

The table below (see pdf) presents an outline of Africa’s multisectoral and fundamental food insecurity problems, which have common origins in all countries.

To address the food security situation in Africa, decision-makers have considered launching national and regional food self-sufficiency policies: in short, a program for a “Green  Revolution for Africa.” However, given Africa’s present deficits in terms of food storage capacities and largescale and rapid transportation systems, any increases in marketable produce could lead to excessive stockpiling and gradual deterioration of foodstuffs at their site of production. Elsewhere in the developed world, logistical transportation solutions, including refrigerated lorries and warehouses, have proved to be effective solutions.

In Africa, such solutions have yet to be fully developed. As the table above demonstrates, food security hinges on well functioning regional transportation networks; efficient pricing mechanisms; regional marketing and distribution networks, and sound logistics. Not least, it demands strong political will at the governmental level to construct a robust and coherent agenda for regional infrastructure development.

2.3  Role of regional infrastructure in the food supply chain

Infrastructure in terms of adequate energy and water/irrigation supplies, high-speed communications, and seamless transportation systems connecting areas of high production with centers of high consumption, all play a crucial role in safeguarding food security.

Because of the differing locations of activities along the food supply chain, their economic relationship is based on efficient transportation and long distance communication services. These are essential to ensure sustainable access to basic food products. Moreover, the development of regional infrastructure that can contribute to food supply and price stability will have a decisive impact on the overall level of consumption and on food security.

In Africa, agricultural resources are unequally distributed across national and subregional territories because of the disparate endow - ments and potentialities of different countries. The lack of connective infrastructure between deficit and surplus areas for the production, collection, and distribution of food products heightens food insecurity in all subregions. This vulnerability is accentuated by a lack of high-tech infrastructure (including refrigerated storage) for national and regional trade of food products – which are, by definition, seasonal and perishable.

Transportation infrastructures are used, in one direction, to distribute agricultural inputs to farmers to improve productivity and, in the other direction, to transport large volumes of produce from areas of production to those of processing, storage, marketing, distribution, and consumption. For transportation to be cost-effective, it needs to be reliable and delivered at low-cost, which is problematic for a continent with challenging economic geography. Furthermore, as outlined previously, increasing urbanization and migration to cities means that more and more people are relying on rural manpower and increased agricultural productivity to meet their nutritional needs.

Throughout the food supply chain, the regional economic role of the modern infrastructures of transportation, telecommunications, and energy facilitate cheaper long distance product flows as well as enhanced commercialization and trade between complementary regions. The aim of regional trade infrastructure should be to promote cross-country synergies and exploit economies of scale by opening up larger markets, thereby lowering transaction costs.

2.4  Establishing regional food security corridors

The question then arises: Which infrastructure framework can best address the food security crisis in Africa? The establishment of food security corridors, as sketched out in Chart 8 (see pdf),  would offer significant benefits to participating countries. This framework would comprise connected networks of roads, railroads, electricity, ICT (Information, Communication, Technologies), water and logistics that would serve all the locations of food supply chain activities, from agricultural producers, to factories (agro-industries), processing plants, distribution centers, through to consumers in urban centers. This would entail a sustainable process of regional integration of countries that possess comparable levels of food security and infrastructure support for their food economies.

The impact of regional infrastructure on food security depends on its nature and quality. Thus, the construction of food security corridors that accelerate and multiply communication between the poles of high consumption and production areas is one approach to promote food security.

The impacts of the individual sectors of regional infrastructure development are summarized below:

Transportation: The modern infrastructure that supports regional transportation by road, rail, air, and sea can reduce transit times for products and lower procurement costs (inputs, transport and production). By opening up new markets, transportation facilitates diversification of products and expansion, thereby boosting trade and economic growth. The impact on marketable volumes, producers' incomes, and consumers’ purchasing power is reflected in economies of scale and mass consumption.

ICT: The infrastructure that supports information, commu - nication and technology allows the establishment of freight, transit, and cross-border trade platforms and facilitates the dissemination of regional market data on perishable products for a fair comparison of supply and demand. The impact on the security of formal business operations as well as on the reliability of transactions is reflected in the setting of reasonable prices, thanks to direct competition between regional markets.

Electricity: The electrification infrastructure (e.g. refrigerated containers) can transform or preserve large volumes of perishable products in a form that is appropriate to population consumption. The impact on the agro-industry as well as on the improvement of health conditions is translated into a better adaptation of processed products for urban and mass consumption.

Water supply and sanitation infrastructure: This helps to build networks of drinking water supply, irrigation and health environment conducive to food consumption in urban and rural areas. The impact on agricultural intensification is reflected in the diversification of seasonal food crops or consumption of seasonal products and in the strengthening of regional water and food stockpiles.

Logistics: Other logistical infrastructures support the concentration of marketing areas across national and regional wholesale markets, as well as the connection of these networks to regional highways to establish food security corridors along with corridors of development.

When all these spheres are linked into a complementary intersectoral framework of food security corridors, their synergistic benefits are far greater than the sum of the individual sectors. The influence zones of such corridors cover economic areas that promote a balanced distribution of food security support areas. For countries with a network of modern and appropriate infrastructures, the impact of regional infrastructure can be crucial at all stages of activities along the food supply chain.

Secondary connective infrastructures guarantee cross-border linkages between local economies, their branching to isolated villages, thereby promoting access between economic concentration centers (consumption, processing, import and export) and production, extraction and exploitation areas.

Studies undertaken on the spatial distribution of economic infrastructures point to the need for development corridors and connective networks to be constructed, in order to meet food security requirements on the continent. The origin of food insecurity lies partly in a failure to instigate robust and coherent policies and strategies at a regional level.

Therefore the solution must also lie at the regional level, as elaborated in the final section that follows.

  • Impact of regional infrastructure development on food security in Africa - Section Two, in Africa Food Security Brief, African Development Bank, July 2012.  The 16 page Brief can be accessed here.  
  • Section 1: Highlights of the food security situation in Africa
  • Section 2: Impact of regional infrastructure development on food security in Africa
  • Section 3: Conclusions
28 August 2012
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