All countries in the Nile Basin, with the exception of Egypt, have been classified as some of the world’s most food-insecure countries in the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s (FAO) 2018 Global Hunger Index.
The recurrent state of food insecurity in most countries in the Nile Basin, be it limited quantity or quality, is an embarrassing situation considering the abundant opportunities in the form of vast swaths of arable land, favourable climate, water and knowledge available to produce enough food to feed the people, and perhaps sell the excess in regional and international markets.
Food insecurity also inflicts severe and lasting damage to the health of people by limiting their mental and physical abilities through poor nutrition.
Because the bulk of the food in our countries comes from smallholder farmers (who are also the majority of the population), defeating the problem of food insecurity, therefore, has to start with addressing the challenges facing the smallholder farmer. It also means that lifting the farmer from a destitute situation into a prosperous one, will have a multiplying effect on the wider economy. Doing so will unleash numerous economic opportunities such as markets for the much-touted industrial and service sectors, which will create integrated and self-sustaining economies.
The challenges facing smallholder farmers range from an increasing shortage of land due to bulging populations and undernourishment of the soil, as well as limited access to good quality seeds and well-developed value chains for the crops grown.
The challenge of food insecurity has been compounded by the rising impacts of climate change.
Take maize, for example, which is the biggest staple crop on the continent. Increased maize output has come largely through increased expansion of the cultivated land rather than through increased production per acre. Farmers too have not realised much income from the crop because of the low levels of processing and low levels of integration into other industries needed to turn the crop into a high-value commodity that goes beyond its use as food.
The challenge of food insecurity has been compounded by the rising impacts of climate change and climate variability, rapid increases in population vis-a-vis limited land and water resources.
The greatest challenge stems from the lack of political commitment at all levels to prioritise the agricultural sector as the cog in the wheel of our economies. The failure of most African countries to fulfil their commitments to boost investments in the agricultural sector by at least 10 percent of annual resources, as per the Malabo Declaration of 2014, is a clear indicator that many leaders attach low importance to the sector that supports the majority of the population and upon which the goals of ending hunger, poverty and unemployment are anchored.
Only a few Nile Basin countries such as Ethiopia and Rwanda, have implemented the Malabo Declaration and improved their food security. Increased investments in the sector would go a long way in developing the value chain of food crops and thereby reduce losses arising from poor post-harvest handling, another major contributor to food insecurity. Supplementing rainfed farming with irrigation is a necessary step in countering the recurrent effects of climate change that have increased in frequency in recent years.
Collaboration amongst countries through trade, sharing of resources and knowledge are critical in ensuring that food reaches those who need it the most, regardless of national borders. The collaborative development of transport and energy infrastructures in the Nile Basin needs to be supported to achieve the desired economic integration of our various countries.
This collaboration can be moved a notch higher by ensuring that counties share knowledge and experiences in producing food that best suits the ecological conditions of that country without undermining the greater good of the community.
Nile Basin countries have all the necessary tools to escape the curse of food insecurity.
Building and strengthening platforms for cooperation such as the East African Community, and the Nile Basin Initiative have been essential in mitigating wars and conflict that have proved to be major causes of hunger, according to the Global Hunger Index report 2015.
Mindset changes among individual farmers that allow them to tap into available modern knowledge of food production and marketing can also go a long way towards countering the challenge of food insecurity.
With rapid advances in scientific research and technology, Nile Basin countries have all the necessary tools to escape the curse of food insecurity.