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Africa’s food crisis: Experts advocate linking farmers to markets

By Jimoh Babatunde with agency reports
As food crisis unfolds in West Africa’s Sahel region, some of the world’s leading experts in agriculture markets say the time is ripe to confront the “substantial inefficiencies” in trade policy, transportation, information services, credit, crop storage and other market challenges that leave Africans particularly vulnerable to food-related problems.

“We can’t control the weather or international commodities speculators, but there are many things we can do to improve market conditions in Africa that will increase food availability and help stabilize food prices across the continent,” said Anne Mbaabu, director of the Market Access Program at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which has invested US$30 million over the last four years to improve market opportunities for Africa’s smallholder farmers.

AGRA and the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) have just released a book that features a range of studies that collectively make a compelling argument for embracing agriculture-oriented market improvements as crucial to not only avoiding future food crises but also for establishing a firm foundation for rural development and economic growth.

Its publication comes as international aid groups are rushing assistance to Niger and other nations of the African Sahel—a narrow but long belt of arid land south of the Sahara that stretches across the continent—where a combination of high food prices and poor weather has left some 14 million people without enough to eat.

The food problems in the Sahel are emerging just as African governments and aid groups say they have stabilized a food crisis in the Horn of Africa that at its peak in Somalia had left 58 percent of children under the age of five acutely malnourished.

But while volatility in international commodities markets is being widely cited as a major cause of the food shortages in the Sahel, there is growing evidence that at least some of the food price fluctuation in Africa is caused by domestic factors.

Recent research—led by Joseph Karugia, Coordinator of the Regional Strategic Analysis and Knowledge Support System for Eastern and Central Africa (ReSAKSS-ECA) at ILRI, and colleagues at the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA)—examining food price volatility in Eastern Africa suggests domestic factors are playing a role as well.

The researchers found that over the last few years, even when global prices have receded, domestic prices in the region have remained high. For example, while global maize prices declined by 12 percent in the last quarter of 2008, in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Zambia and Rwanda, they increased.

The study finds food price volatility in these countries is at least partly due to barriers and policies impeding the flow of food among markets in the region and between the region and global markets.

“We need to consider what can be done within Africa to reduce our vulnerability to food-related problems,” said ILRI’s Interim Deputy Director General for Research Steve Staal, an agricultural economist with expertise in smallholder farming systems.


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