The Great Debate – Stopping Crises by Seizing Opportunities to Build Resilient Food Systems
The briefing notes that were issued prior to this debate cited the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.” This quote feels ever more prophetic and far sighted when you consider he made it in the 1960s well before the explosion of globalization or the emergence of China and other Tiger economies in global supply chains.
Since then, of course, the homogenization of the supply chain has multiplied endlessly and almost to a person we depend, in some way or the other, on food production and distribution chains, a fact made more stark by the threat that climate change poses to them.
No one denies that globalization of food systems has brought enormous benefits to the consumer and the countries themselves but it has also exposed vulnerabilities when the chains are broken or disrupted as we see today with the Ukraine crisis. Nowhere are these cracks more keenly felt than in Africa but it has galvanized the continent towards food sovereignty thus disrupting the well-established trade systems.
African agriculture however can turn this narrative around and it has enormous potential to do so. The African continent is home to about 60% of the potential agricultural land in the world , along with a huge youth population and water resources.
The topic for thedebate that was put to its illustrious panel was ‘What is your big idea to build resilient food systems, in a way that is sustainable and fair, so that the continent with the world’s youngest and fastest growing demographic can overcome future shocks and eliminate dependencies?’
Leading individuals from policy, trade, development, health, finance and international civil society gathered here and duked it out in a positive and respectful fashion, discussing how to safeguard local, regional, national and international food systems, highlighting the opportunities that must be grasped, changes that must be made and challenging one another on points of difference with the singular aim of finding the common ground needed to build consensus on how to advance the African cause.
The moderator Ms. Tania Habimana, a journalist and Anchor for CNBC Africa, challenged the panel by asking ‘how do you try to unlock our potential, how do we move forward as a continent?’
Mr. Ibrahima Cheikh-Diong, UN-ASG and Director-General, Africa Risk Capacity Group kickstarted proceedings by pointing to the necessity of sustainable finance, investment needs to take a longer-term view and the National Banks need to seriously look at the sector properly because that is where the cheap money is for investment purposes rather than VCs and private capital.
This was a view echoed by others on the panel, pointing out the fact that ‘28% of the continent are already entrepreneurs and it’s about unlocking that huge amount of potential. Agriculture is the fastest growing sector within venture capital. We need to bring together the pieces and end the over dependence on foreign capital.’
Mr. Khalid Bomba, Managing Director, Agrifood Transformation Agency Support Center (TASC) urged the need ‘to build the capacity within public sector to be competitive and end the reliance on private sector and outsourcing’. Pointing to successes in Ethiopia through the Government stepping into map the soil across the whole country resulting in targeted fertilizer recommendations which improved yield and prevented soil erosion.
Dr. Sandy Thomas, Director, Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition however felt that the big idea needed to consider at how policy makers looking to embrace food transformation systems ‘need to consider multiple crises and not focus on the most immediate one’ but rather look at those that might emerge over a longer time frame. She also suggested that a ‘drive towards diversification in crops would reduce risks of monoculture’.
H.E. Lionel Zinsou, Board Member, Danone and Former Prime Minister of Benin took a different position to other members of the panel and suggested that empowering the people, not the public sector or government made more sense as, ‘the best experts are the small farms not the ministers’.
The moderator deftly challenged the panel and probed them on their answers, pushing them to expand on their answers. When challenged on what should be the priorities given the competing needs of the region, Mr. Ibrahima Cheikh-Diong stated very clearly that it was hard to conceive of a greater one than food production – ‘I can’t think of a better priority than feeding our people.’
Mr. Acha Leke, Senior Partner, McKinsey & Co advocated for greater sovereignty within the country, urging countries to act together as a region not just as individual countries as the inner conflict simply allowed countries outside of Africa to profit on the disconnect, ‘when we’re importing products we’re exporting jobs’.
Unlike a conventional debate there were no winners or losers, although it might be argued that the winners were Africa herself. This was about a free exchange of ideas, daring to be bold and ambitious and over reaching in the desire to flip the script. The debate highlighted not just the interest present at ARGF 2022 but also the experience and wisdom needed to elicit change from a region that has too often got in its own way.