Sowing the seeds of global food security with lessons from across Africa

Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR

Daniel D. Odongo

A longstanding custom deeply rooted in numerous African societies demonstrates the continent's unwavering dedication to food security and adaptability. African granaries, an ancient storage system designed to preserve essential crops, are vital to maintaining a consistent food supply for communities throughout the region. These iconic structures, typically constructed using locally available materials and constructed with ancestral knowledge, represent more than simple storage facilities; they embody the essence of self-reliance and the significance placed on protecting food resources. Despite facing challenges such as droughts, conflicts, economic downturns, and health crises over time, Africa has consistently pioneered innovative and resourceful strategies to ensure its own food security and can share invaluable lessons with the rest of the world.

African agriculture between crises and innovation

Today, the world is hungrier than ever before. As many as 828 million people are unsure of where their next meal is coming from. Climate shocks are destroying lives, crops and livelihoods and undermining people’s ability to feed themselves.  As if that is not enough, geopolitical tensions continue to exert profound and far-reaching consequences on some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable countries. The resulting conflict remains the biggest driver of hunger today, with 70 per cent of the world's hungry people living in areas afflicted by war and violence. This complex yet mutually reinforcing relationship between hunger and conflict is no stranger to many African countries. One-too-many conflicts have induced disruption in agricultural production,  displacement of populations, and undermined access to food, resulting in food insecurity. Specific examples include the inter-state disputes between DRC and Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia, and the recently resolved Uganda - Rwanda border stalemate. Africa has been chastened as a needy child in need of aid and a tinderbox timebomb of conflict, disease and poverty. However, the rhetoric that views Africa solely as a hotbed of hunger and conflict ignores the significant strides that countries and communities have made. Notwithstanding the current situation in Sudan or DRC, we cannot shrug off the fact that Rwanda convalesced from a tragic genocide to become a model of economic growth; and that despite its limited resources, Uganda is among the top three most hospitable countries for refugees and asylum seekers. In 11 African countries, women hold close to one-third of the seats in parliaments, more than in Europe. A great deal remains to be done, but ignoring the transformation across the continent would be rather insular.

Against the backdrop of global crises, food security challenges are transcending borders, and the impact of the food shock is being felt everywhere. High food and energy prices have triggered a cost-of-living crisis that is likely to increase poverty and hurt growth in many more countries. An old African proverb says — “a boat cannot go forward if each rows his own way” — meaning that we can best overcome our collective challenges by working together. From innovative farming techniques to technological advancements and community-driven initiatives, Africa's journey towards self-sufficiency and sustainability might inspire the world. Some noteworthy food security innovations that have emerged from Africa include the use of mobile technology, climate-resilient agriculture as well as indigenous techniques for crop preservation and promotion.

Mobile technology has been a game changer for Africa

The widespread adoption of mobile phones has opened up financial inclusion and access to agricultural information for smallholder farmers. Mobile Money allows those without a bank account to store, use and transfer funds digitally.  According to GSMA, the daily transactions via mobile money in Africa in 2022 reached $3.45 billion. Access to mobile phones has also empowered smallholder farmers with valuable insights to enable informed decision-making, enhanced productivity, and improved market participation. Digital platforms like Esoko, originating from Ghana, leverages mobile technology to offer farmers access to agricultural information, market prices, weather updates, and best practices. These platforms use technology to streamline the agricultural value chain, improve market access for farmers, and facilitate the efficient distribution of produce. As part of their Vital Signs project, Kenyan-based Citizen Science pioneer — Ushahidi — built an environmental data collection and monitoring system to help agricultural decision-makers protect the environment while encouraging increased food production.

An Ushahidi deployment by iCow that is linking smallholder farmers to experts in Kenya

Climate-resilient agriculture in response to unpredictable weather events

Given the vulnerability of African agriculture to climate change, there has been a focus on climate-smart agricultural practices. Innovations such as conservation agriculture, agroforestry, and precision farming techniques are being promoted. There is an emergence of low-cost, high-impact measures being tailored to address country-specific circumstances. In Kenya, the push-pull farming system developed by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) combines intercropping and pest management techniques to enhance crop yields and resilience. Vertical farming and hydroponics are also gaining popularity in urban areas with limited arable land. These methods involve growing crops in vertically stacked layers or nutrient-rich water solutions. They maximize space utilization and optimize resource efficiency, allowing for the year-round production of vegetables and herbs in urban environments. Notable examples of this include the Vertical Veggie project in Rwanda and the Urban Fresh Farms initiative in Nigeria.

Indigenous crop preservation and promotion

Many African communities have deep knowledge of indigenous crops that are resilient to local conditions and have high nutritional value. Initiatives such as the African Orphan Crops Consortium (AOCC) aim to preserve, study, and promote 101 African orphan and underresearched crops/trees that are rich in minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants that are an integral part of the dietary portfolio and cultural, social, and economic contexts of African farmers. This would unlock their potential to improve food security and nutrition. This initiative involves mapping the genomes of orphan crops, breeding improved varieties, and promoting their cultivation. Another innovative approach implemented by the Alliance of Bioversity International in Kenya, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe has been establishing community seed networks to conserve and distribute indigenous crop varieties. This ensures that diverse and locally adapted seeds are available to farmers, enabling them to maintain crop diversity and contribute to global efforts in biodiversity conservation and food sovereignty.

Reflecting on the enlightening discussions and vibrant exchange of ideas at the Potsdam Spring Dialogues 2023, I am filled with hope and inspiration. Witnessing firsthand the collective dedication and expertise of experts, practitioners and leaders committed to addressing the critical issue of food security, I am convinced that collaborations across borders and contexts can build a more sustainable and resilient future for all. The innovations highlighted above are reminiscent of the African granary – they offer lessons in human-centred design principles and play a vital role in nourishing communities. Africa's rich tapestry of traditional wisdom and modern innovations intertwine, offering a roadmap towards a world free from hunger. Let us embrace this mosaic of knowledge and weave a future of food security together.

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.


Daniel D. Odongo Implementation Lead, Ushahidi Inc., Nairobi