Is Africa Missing The Boat With Increasing Food Imports?

Is Africa Missing The Boat With Increasing Food Imports?

Falling agricultural productivity, a rising middle class and more mouths to feed are driving up Africa’s food imports, and that could spell opportunity, or set off finger pointing.

Bad luck could be blamed, according to an article in Financial Times. Rice crops were damaged by bad weather in Niger, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Benin. Egypt’s cattle have been beset by foot and mouth disease, and a virus is ripping through the cassava crop.

On the other hand, agricultural productivity in Africa has been falling since the 1980s. Africa lost its status as an exporter of net agricultural products when prices of commodities fell and production stagnated, according to the report. Since then, imports have grown faster than exports.

Policy could also be blamed. Nigeria, Africa’s largest rice importer, announced an import tax hike in 2012 prompting a sudden increase in purchases. And across Africa, weak infrastructure hinders agri-markets, according to Financial Times.

Nigeria is one of the best examples of Africa’s agricultural decline, according to its agriculture minister, Akinwumi Adesina, who was interviewed by the Financial Times at the World Economic Forum in Cape Town. In the 1960s, he said, Nigeria beat out Malaysia and Indonesia in palm oil production, and the U.S. and Argentina in groundnuts. Nigeria  produced 18 percent of the world’s cocoa, down to 8 percent today. It produces 65 percent West Central Africa’s tomatoes but is now China’s and Italy’s largest importer of tomato paste.

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Nigeria is second in the world in citrus production and Africa’s biggest pineapple producer, but its supermarkets are stocked with concentrated, imported versions of both. “The only local content is water from Nigeria,” the minister said in the article.

It can be argued, according to the article, that import-dependence means opportunity. Structural imbalances are often a symptom of fast growth, says its author, Adam Green. China’s annual agricultural consumption has also surpassed production, Green wrote. Africa’s status as an importer could be a sign for companies and investors of strong domestic demand on the continent that could be satisfied through investment in domestic agriculture and retail food.

Jean-Louis Ekra, president of the African Export-Import Bank in Cairo, said Africa’s  growth of 5 to 6 percent a year translates into a growing middle class who want more things.

“Rising imports are also a consequence of wealth and one of its quickest effects: a taste for protein,” the article said. “Poultry imports were up about 12 percent last year, driven by higher incomes in the likes Angola, Benin, Ghana and the Republic of the Congo.”

Africa’s agricultural productivity has triggered multitude of public initiatives including Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa headed up by Kofi Annan and Grow Africa.