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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Africa’s Looming Food Crisis can be Mitigated

Images of rioters in Egypt, Senegal, Cameroon, Burkina Faso and Mozambique (among others) clashing with police in protest against soaring food prices and Kenya’s abandoned internally displaced people all tell a similar story: Africa needs to retool its thinking.

All other challenges facing the continent today should have long been dealt with. Robert Mugabe and his cronies should have conceded defeat two weeks ago, and let Zimbabwe rediscover itself as a country. Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga should have reached a political agreement over power sharing last year. What we see today is a smokescreen that disguises Africa’s real disease: lack of leadership.

The UN reports that Africa will not be able achieve the millennium development goal (MDG) of overcoming hunger and malnutrition. A continent that is still grappling with the ‘food level’ fifty years down the line cannot be competitive in the global arena.

In the recently concluded global finance ministers’ meeting, it was declared that food crisis poses a greater threat to economic and political stability than the crunch in the financial markets. The World Bank estimates that 33 countries around the world face potential social unrest linked to the surging food and energy prices. Moreover, the World Food Programme is appealing for at least $500 million of additional food supplies to meet current emergency needs to offset the soaring cost of basic food in Africa and other parts of the world where riots threaten political and economic stability.

“It is a crime against humanity” says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, to focus on fuel without having solved the food problem. Africa has been a victim of the war (real or imagined) against the emergence of China as a super power and the protest against US foreign policies in the oil rich Middle East. This warfare has seen the increase in fuel prices. The 2008 Beijing Olympics torch protests against China’s policies in Tibet and Darfur shows just how determined the US is in reversing China’s progress. The tumbling financial markets have also played a big role in pushing up global food prices affecting many developing countries. Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute observes that “… rising world energy prices have made food production more costly and have created incentives for farmers to switch from food to fuel production.”

The realities of demography, changing diets, energy prices and climate change suggest that high and volatile food prices will be with us for years to come. “Since 2005, the prices of staples have jumped 80 percent. Last month, the real price of rice hit a 19-year high; the real price of wheat rose to a 28-year high and almost twice the average price of the last 25 years.” says World Bank president, Robert Zoelick .

Africa needs to focus on increasing its food production in the coming few years to avert total chaos as a result of civil strife due to food shortage. Africa’s food crisis is however artificial. Individual countries must open up their borders to each other to facilitate movement of food. Africans also ought to shun the traditional mindset that labels certain foodstuffs like maize as food while considering rice or potatoes as non-food.

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