Building resilience: African food security and the risk of global trade fragmentation


Kouassi Yeboua and Jakkie Cilliers

Africa has about 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land, but by any measure of food security, it is the most insecure region globally. Over the past 35 years, Africa has been the only continent where the number of chronically undernourished people has increased.

African food security depends heavily on global trade stability

Due to several factors, such as lack of political will, low investment, climate change, lack of technology, weak infrastructure, and recurrent conflicts, domestic production does not meet the nutritional demand of the growing African population. As a result, Africa relies heavily on external sources of food and fertiliser to meet its demand. The continent's food import bill reached 85 billion USD in 2021and is forecasted to be 110 billion USD by 2025. A free flow of global trade plays a critical role in helping Africa achieve food security by diversifying food sources, increasing food availability, facilitating agricultural technology transfer, ensuring price stability, and enhancing nutrition and food quality.

However, the stability of global trade has been dramatically challenged in recent years by heightened trade frictions. Before COVID-19 and the Russian war against Ukraine, unilateral tariff imposition and other trade restrictions created trade tensions. They undermined the multilateral trade order nurtured by the WTO (e.g., Trump's trade war with China). According to IMF research, uncertainty around trade policies alone reduced global GDP in 2019 by nearly 1%. 

The war in Ukraine has led to geopolitical tensions, economic sanctions imposed by some countries on Russia, and retaliatory sanctions imposed by Russia. These sanctions have affected trade flows, with restrictions on exports and imports, disrupted global supply chains, and increased cereal and energy prices. As of mid-October 2022, 52 export restrictions measures on food, feed and fertilisers were in place to protect domestic markets from further price increases. Global supply chains are reconfiguring, and geopolitical considerations are increasingly driving international trade and investment.

The future direction of global trade is uncertain. But with the heightened geopolitical tensions, there is a risk that trade could become more fragmented between competing geopolitical blocs. Africa's increasing dependence on imports for seed, fertiliser and some cereals means that further trade fragmentation will exacerbate the already high food insecurity and malnutrition on the continent.

When geopolitics becomes a factor in economic decision-making, countries act decisively to protect their national or economic security. This may result in further protectionist policies that will harm Africa's food security by restricting the availability of food products or increasing the cost of imports.

In a fragmented world with heightened geopolitical tensions, investors may also worry that nonaligned countries will be forced to choose one bloc or the other. Such uncertainty could make Africa lose critical foreign direct investment in the food sector, which is vital for food security on the continent.

Africa needs to build resilient food systems

"Business as usual" is not an option; it is high time for Africa to boost domestic agriculture production. Similar to how European countries have come together to gradually reduce dependency on Russian energy in response to the recent conflict, Africa must begin to reduce its external dependence on essential agricultural commodities. Under the auspices of the African Union, Africa should utilise this crisis as an opportunity to take collective action to scale up domestic food production and reverse its dependence on food imports.  

The African Union is good at setting targets and agendas, but the implementation is usually disappointing. Its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), adopted in 2003, recommended that African countries allocate 10% of their annual national budget to agriculture. After 20 years, only four countries, namely Egypt, Eswatini, Seychelles, and Zambia have achieved the 10% public budget target. Also, the 2006 Abuja Declaration called for an increase in Africa's average fertiliser application rates from 20kg/ha to 50kg/ha to enhance production. Today Africa's average application rate is still at its 2006 level, while the global average is 130kg/ha. According to research by the UNDP, meeting these targets could more than double food production on the continent in only a few years.

Africa has sufficient potash and ammonia for a sustainable fertiliser industry to reduce its dependence on imports from Ukraine and Russia. It is estimated that existing fertiliser blending facilities (in 19 African countries) and manufacturing plants (in 10 African countries) operate well below capacity. In Nigeria, for example, if fertiliser-producing plants were working at full capacity (Dangote's full capacity is 3 million tons and Indorama's 1.4 million tons), the country could meet its 1.5 million tons of fertiliser consumption as well as that of the rest of the region. Concerted infrastructure, technology, and skills investments are therefore necessary to increase domestic fertiliser production.

Intra-African trade and access to resources are key

The full implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement will increase the size of the African market and facilitate the availability of affordable fertiliser across the continent. It will also increase food trade between African countries and strengthen food security. East Africa, for instance, is good at growing food crops like beans, vegetables, and pulses. West Africa is particularly suitable for producing millet, rice, and fish. The southern African region (dominated by South Africa) is best known for maize, wheat, and soybeans. In contrast, North Africa is a major producer of beans, citrus fruit, and poultry. AfCFTA will help trade these products within the continent and create a more resilient food network.

Farmers should also be given access to modern inputs like pesticides, high-yielding seed varieties, and improved agricultural practices to increase crop yields. Governments can also invest in irrigation infrastructure and provide extension services to farmers to improve their knowledge and skills. They should mitigate the effects of climate change and reduce post-harvest losses by investing in research and development to develop drought-tolerant crops and improving infrastructure to facilitate transportation.

Smallholder farmers often lack the financial resources and market access needed to grow their businesses. Governments and NGOs can provide credit facilities and work with private sector companies to create markets for smallholder farmers, allowing them to sell their produce at fair prices and increase their income. Modernising land ownership is particularly important as it will help farmers to use their land as collateral to access credit.

Finally, there is a need to improve governance, peace, and security in Africa. Political instability and conflict exacerbate food insecurity by disrupting agricultural production, causing displacement, and reducing access to food. Improving governance, peace, and security can create an environment more conducive to addressing food insecurity and promoting sustainable agriculture.

With a coordinated effort from governments, NGOs, private sector companies, and other stakeholders, Africa can build resilient food systems and significantly reduce its food import dependence and hedge against the impact of further trade disintegration on food security on the continent.  

This entry has been inspired by the Potsdam Spring Dialogues 2023 "Food Security in Africa in Times of Global Crises - Regional Strategies against Hunger and Dependency", an event organized by the Development and Peace Foundation (sef:) in cooperation with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). The Potsdam Spring Dialogues deal with regional cooperation with and within the African continent on changing topics.


Kouassi Yeboua Senior Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies Pretoria.

Jakkie Cilliers Head, African Futures & Innovation, Institute for Security Studies Pretoria