Nature Restoration and Curbing Food Loss and Waste Must Be Central to Africa’s Food Systems Transformation
This post is written by Dr. Susan Chomba, Director of Vital Landscapes for Africa, World Resources Institute,
Hunger and malnutrition are a big problem in Africa — and it's only getting worse. The Horn of Africa is facing the most catastrophic levels of hunger and malnutrition witnessed in the last decades — 37 million people are hungry and more than 7 million children are malnourished. A quarter of Democratic Republic of Congo’s 90 million population face acute food insecurity. In Angola, that number is nearly 60 percent, and it's even more than that — 63 percent — in South Sudan.
A perfect storm of prolonged droughts, conflicts, lingering effects of COVID-19 as well as rising cost of food prices has produced the current crisis. But the underlying causes of vulnerability of African food systems are deeper than what meets the eye. Land degradation, dependence on rain-fed agriculture and food imports, as well as poor investment in the agriculture sector by national and sub-national governments are some of the key barriers to realizing a sustainable food future on the continent.
It’s no secret that food systems in Africa are in urgent need of transformation.
As droughts pummel food systems across the continent, the most vulnerable people on earth will increasingly suffer the most. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth Assessment report (AR6) shows that these events are now the norm, and not the exception.
The urgency of building resilient food systems is clear.
More and more, governments, aid agencies and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs) are mobilized to support this transformation, but the tactics used in the past aren’t enough. Increasing productivity alone has been the dominant development paradigm for the last decades, but that strategy won’t solve food insecurity in Africa in a sustainable manner.
In fact, some interventions that aim to do so may have negative impacts in the long-term by creating incentives for deforestation, altering soil properties and causing acidification, killing soil microorganisms and reducing microbial properties that are essential for long-term soil health and productivity.
Because of the interlinkages between our food systems, nature and climate, it is not sufficient to address challenges affecting any of these components separately. So how can international actors support African-led efforts to increase food security without threatening biodiversity, water and the critical ecosystems we rely on to keep climate change at bay?
Here are two ways that the World Resources Institute (WRI) Africa supports increased food security through interventions that support climate, nature, and people:
- Reversing Land Degradation
When done right and with food in mind, landscape restoration interventions can improve agricultural productivity and food security and still avoid negative impacts on nature and people. For example, integrating nitrogen fixing trees into croplands has positive impacts on soil quality, which improves crop productivity. However, such programs can have certain pitfalls. Tree-based restoration interventions that pursue fast-growing exotic species that take more than they feed into the soil have also been shown to demand high nutrients and water, thereby negatively affecting agricultural productivity.
To do restoration well, implementers must have the right knowledge and tools to establish the right trees, in the right places and for the right purposes. In addition to growing the right trees, other methods of soil and water conservation, crop and livestock management are integrated to build resilient farming systems. This ultimately leads to better results for food production, while ensuring nature is sustained and the impact of climate change is combated.
WRI supports these efforts as a founding member and a technical partner of the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100), an initiative that has successfully mobilized more than half of African countries to commit to restoring 128 million hectares of degraded lands by 2030.
What does it look like in practice? One example can be found Makueni, Kenya, where WRI works closely with county leadership and provides technical support to revamp rural productivity by restoring forests, farms and other ecosystems.
Forest loss in the Makuli-Nzaui landscape reduced the availability of key ecosystem services like water and soil nutrients, caused widespread erosion and most importantly, harmed agri-food productivity. Now, under AFR100, communities in Makueni grow millions of crop-compatible seedlings to be planted within the framework of the county’s Landscape Restoration Action Plan, which was co-developed by national and local governments, community representatives, and NGOs.
2. Towards Circular Economy in the Agri-food Sector
Today, a circular economy in the agri-food sector is considered a key part of the transformation needed in the global food system. Circular food systems aim to produce food in ways that regenerate nature, reduce food loss and waste (FLW), and pollution, and keep otherwise-wasted products and materials in use. They can also prevent agricultural expansion and deforestation and improve the resiliency of people vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The adoption of circular food systems is critical in Africa where the majority of people derive their livelihood from the agricultural sector, most of whom are food insecure
Circular food systems also have climate benefits: They reduce potent greenhouse gases, such as methane, that are produced by landfills.
WRI Africa and partner organizations have embarked on a circular food systems project in Rwanda that seeks to promote circular food systems by influencing policy interventions and working with Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in the sector.
Shifts in the enabling environment are needed to prevent FLW and promote circularity. WRI Africa and partners are facilitating the development of policy frameworks for adopting and implementing circular food systems in the country. In parallel, WRI is exploring the facilitation of a technical and financial assistance facility to SMEs to help them improve their business by incorporating circular business models. This aims to create an enabling environment for circular agri-food SMEs to proliferate and scale.
They can do this by increasing market awareness of circular agri-food business opportunities, increasing the availability of affordable, high-quality, demand-driven technical assistance for circular SMEs, and improving market connections between circular SMEs, value chain partners, and investors.
One example of this is BIDEC, Rwanda-based SME that produces organic fertilizer with aims to expand into organic insecticides and pesticides.
Shifting to circular food systems provides triple benefits by creating jobs, addressing food insecurity and combating climate change. Addressing FLW is a less-costly way to close the food requirements gap while contributing to lowering food production costs, making food systems more efficient and enhancing environmental sustainability. It’s also good for business.
The World Resources Institute has been working in Africa for more than 30 years, supporting local partners and Africa governments to advance forest protection, landscape restoration and sustainable cities. WRI Africa promotes sustainable and resilient growth in Africa by generating actionable knowledge across three strategic pillars: vital landscapes, thriving and resilient cities, and institutional and economic transformation. Contact: Dr. Susan Chomba, Director of Vital Landscapes for Africa.
 Holl, K. D., & Brancalion, P. H. (2020). Tree planting is not a simple solution. Science, 368(6491), 580-581.