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Uniting Food Security and Economic Growth in Africa

Rice farmer in Madagascar | Photo Credit: UN Photo / Lucien Rajaonin

Rice farmer in Madagascar | Photo Credit: UN Photo / Lucien Rajaonin

With the passing of another year comes the need to look ahead at the issues that will increasingly define the world we live in. Every year since 1945 the international community marks World Food Day, serving as a reminder of the importance of food security in a world where 1 in 8 go hungry. With an expected global population of more than 8 billion by 2025 and growing pressures on agriculture due to climate change, food security is quickly becoming a top interest for governments and policymakers around the world.

One of the most promising places for a new agricultural revolution is Africa where 60% of the world’s unused arable land is located. This has led to foreign companies and governments buying significant land holdings across the continent, a controversial trend of land grabs that threatens to increase food production but not necessarily bring new jobs or income to local African communities. As a result, agriculture is both ignored and overinvested in, with little for ordinary Africans to show for it.

One new initiative is attempting to bridge that gap while also improving food security, not just for Africa, but for the world as a whole. Rather than focus on one aspect of agricultural production, Food University aims to take a holistic approach to agricultural production in Africa, supporting the industry from field to fork.

Working with public and private development partners as well as African universities, Food University aims to establish both a virtual and non-virtual education system that will provide education and training to a million African students over the next 10 years in all elements of the agricultural sector, focusing not just on land management and modern production techniques, but also marketing, sales, business development and finance. By covering all aspects of the agricultural pipeline, Food University hopes to build the local talent reserves in these areas, bringing new jobs to local communities rather than continue the current trend of importing talent to meet the needs of the industry.

Expanding opportunities for Africans is at the core of Food University’s mission. Alan H. Fleischmann of ImagineNations, one of the partners of Food University, made this clear with their approach. Discussing the perceived limitations in the face of growing international interest in African agriculture, Fleischmann note that rather than just scale the existing model, Food University wants to establish a demand based network that encompasses the entire food ecosystem. “The idea being there is a need for professionals and marketing people, and certificate need to be for those who don’t necessarily want to go into professions but need to show that they have the right skill set in order to be hired,” said Fleischmann. “So it is linking supply and demand, but really focusing on Africa: for Africans, by Africans, in Africa.”

The focus on Africans is important if economic growth is to impact ordinary people. A recent survey by AfroBarometer highlighted the reality that despite impressive economic growth across the continent, it has done little to systematically reduce poverty for ordinary citizens. Instead most of the gains in wealth are the result of resource extraction, closely guarded industries that fail to spread new found national wealth throughout the populace. Agriculture, which already provides employment for an estimated 60% of Africans according to the African Development Bank, offers a far more sustainable path for economic growth. But doing so requires balancing the issues of land and labor.

Food University is offering a new approach to the issue of labor but the issue of land ownership remains. Property rights are often critical to economic development, but recent trends have shifted these rights away from local populations towards corporate entities. So-called land grabs by foreign companies and governments are increasing in size and scope while land reform remains a hot button issue in many countries, most notably in Zimbabwe and South Africa but some form of land reform programs have also occurred in Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mozambique, Benin, Uganda and Malawi.

Other corporate programs that have come to the continent have often assured that the rights and property of small traditional farmers would be protected, but there is also often a gap in communication and understanding between corporate interests, government and the local rural populace. The Guardian recently featured an article that highlighted these issues in Mozambique, as well as the potential problems with taking one country’s solution and assuming it will automatically work elsewhere. In the rush to obtain agricultural holdings, much can get lost in translation. In some cases, the fallout can be so great as to prompt investors and companies to give up and look elsewhere to fulfil their food security needs. This may benefit those who want no outside involvement in local agriculture, it also places a heavier burden on developed countries for food production and leaves little room for agricultural growth in developing nations.

This is one reason why Food University is a promising venture. While admitting there is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to agricultural production, Food University also acknowledges that Africa calls for a new approach. Working with partners across the continent, Fleischmann noted “we really found a need for something different, something new. We were able to learn from wonderful programs and initiatives all throughout the continent but we are going to be creating something here that will fill a much needed gap.”

There is no question that food security is an important global issue and one that will rise in prominence in the coming years. Given its size and potential, Africa will likely be central to this ongoing movement towards greater food security. Addressing the unique issues on the ground while building an inclusive system that benefits all the shareholders in the agricultural process is an approach that few have tried on a large scale in Africa, but may hold great promise. And while it is too soon to tell, it might just offer a viable path to sustainably growing an economic base in many African countries that the current economic boom has left out.



Kimberly J. Curtis

Kimberly Curtis has a Master's degree in International Affairs and a Juris Doctor from American University in Washington, DC. She is a co-founder of The Women's Empowerment Institute of Cameroon and has worked for human rights organizations in Rwanda and the United States. You can follow her on Twitter at @curtiskj

Areas of Focus: Transitional justice; Women's rights; Africa