A 21st century Food System for Africa must put families back at the centre of agricultural development

Woman farmer standing in her field of crops, Ghana.
Woman farmer standing in her field of crops, Ghana.

On the way to the Summit

Speaking on September 14, 2021, at the preparatory meeting with representatives of the United Nations (UN) Member States on the World Summit on Food Systems, the UN Under-Secretary-General, Her Excellency Ms. Amina J. Mohammed, confirmed that “this Summit reminds us that the very future of humanity depends on solidaritytrust and our ability to work together as a global family to achieve common goals.

In the declaration made at the 11th Summit of the African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF), African countries made the following five commitments for the World Summit on Food Systems: (a) catalyze the rapid expansion of agricultural and food productivity, with particular emphasis on smallholder farmers and women; (b) boost investment financing for African food systems; (c) ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; (d) strengthen Africa’s local and regional food markets; and (e) build resilience, particularly through social safety nets and early warning systems.

While the main actors of global food security have been exchanging and debating for several months and preparing for the Summit scheduled for September 23, 2021, the report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021 (SOFI 2021) depicts a deteriorated situation of global food security and huge challenges to be met for 2030

Indeed, with a 1.5-point jump in the prevalence of undernourishment (currently at 9.9%) and 118 million more people living in hunger between 2019 and 2020, the ‘Zero Hunger’ goal of the SDGs by 2030, could rightly be called a mirage. According to SOFI 2021, Africa has more than one third of the world’s undernourished people (282 million), more than 90% of the world’s stunted children, more than 70% of the world’s overweight children, and has the highest growth in the prevalence of undernourishment.

Furthermore, the negative socio-economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic prevention and protection measures are worsening the economic and food insecurity of vulnerable households and will weigh heavily on efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals number 1 (eradicate poverty in all its forms everywhere) and 2 (eradicate hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) (2020–2030), which we consider, with regret, to be aspirational goals.

In this context of cumulative delays in achieving Goal 1 (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger) of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2 (SDGs), what must Africa do to improve its agricultural performance and build an efficient food system capable of feeding its growing population? 

The challenges and opportunities of African agriculture

First, it is important to remember that small family farms (<1 ha) represent 90% of the continent’s producers and yield about 90% of the continent’s total food production. [1]

African food systems are largely dependent on rainfall, with only 6% of arable land under irrigation[2]which exposes farmers who use the 94% of land under rainfall to the impacts of climate change.

Africa has more than 60% of the world’s arable land, and two thirds of its population is employed in the agricultural sector.[3] On average, the agricultural sector accounts for at least 15% of the continent’s GDP. 

Finally, Africa has one of the youngest populations on the planet, with 60% of its population under the age of 35, representing a powerful source of contribution and innovation for the agricultural sector. 

Despite this great potential, African agriculture has suffered and still suffers from several ills, stemming mainly from the following fundamental problems:  

  • Poor governance of the agricultural sector, with a succession of incoherent and often inconsistent agricultural development policies since independence (state farms reproduce colonial agricultural policies in the aftermath of independence, reforms and structural adjustments in the 1980s, emphasis on large and medium-sized agricultural farms, essentially export-oriented, etc.);
  • Inconsistent and inequitable integration of small-scale producers into agricultural market systems, both in terms of agricultural research and post-harvest management and in terms of economic incentives and market access facilities; 
  • Pervasive inequalities, including gender-based inequalities, across food systems, driven by discriminatory norms and institutions and resulting in systemic disadvantages in access to productive resources and denial of rights to marginalized groups;
  • Chronic underinvestment, particularly for youth and women farmers;
  • A glaring technical and technological gap; 
  • A lagging agricultural performance compared to other regions of the world (low yields/productions, very low irrigation rate of arable land/strong dependence on rain under a changing climate, high post-harvest losses, etc.)

However, the picture is not entirely bleak, as the COVID-19 pandemic, which has reopened debates on the thorny issues of local food systems, the critical role of male and female producers in the national food security of states, and the imperative of reducing the carbon footprint of our food system, represents a major opportunity for the revalorization of African family farming. Indeed, as a result of COVID-19, there is an increased need for food security at the national and local levels given the disruption of markets and supply chains, including the higher price of imported products. This is especially true since the dynamism of African youth- and women-led small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), the ‘hidden middle’ of the industry, has come to convince policymakers and economic actors that African family farms are the central pillar of the continent’s economic and agricultural development. 

Thus, we hope that Mrs. Mohammed’s call, in her September 14, 2021 address, to link new methods of support to country priorities, ‘while facilitating the impact of large-scale systems, including through multi-stakeholder initiatives’, will spur the realization of the commitments of the 11th Summit Declaration of the Forum for the Green Revolution in Africa.

Africa must therefore put family SMEs, particularly those run by women and young people, and the professional structures that bring together family SMEs, back at the centre of its agricultural development priorities (agricultural policies, agronomic research, financing instruments, inclusive governance of market systems geared primarily to meeting growing domestic food demand, technology and innovation).

In this global effort, MEDA has just finalized an ambitious strategic plan (2021–2025) aimed at creating or sustaining decent work for half a million people in emerging economies by 2030, through entrepreneurship and employability of youth and women in agri-food systems. This strategic plan is fully in line with the declaration made at the 11th Summit of the Forum for the Green Revolution in Africa and the priorities for action of the World Summit on Food Systems and is based on three principles: a) focus MEDA’s efforts on specific agri-food market systems in the South, in line with national priorities and the aspirations and needs of youth and women agripreneurs, b) share the voice and power of stakeholders in those aspects of MEDA’s work whose success will be defined by the local context, and c) seek out and create opportunities that contribute to the organization’s long-term strategic goal.

A Basuto proverb from Lesotho states that ‘Wisdom does not live in one house’ (wisdom is not anyone’s monopoly). Please read more about our strategic plan and our work and offer us your wisdom. Together, we will go further!


[1] Agriculture-in-africa_2019_special_report-.pdf (africafertilizer.org) 

[2] Nourished: How Africa Can Build a Future Free from Hunger and Malnutrition (mamopanel.org) 

[3] agriculture-in-africa_2019_special_report-.pdf (africafertilizer.org)


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  • Dr. Pierre Kadet is MEDA’s Regional Director of the West Africa, Middle East and North Africa region. He brings to MEDA over 15 years of academic, headquarter and field experience. He has served for diverse institutions, including United Nations agencies, international non-governmental organizations, and research institutes. Prior to joining MEDA, Pierre worked for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO), Care Canada and Action Against Hunger. Pierre is a passionate environment, climate change and food security specialist and strong advocate of smallholder farmers, especially of women and youth, who account among the 500 million family farmers feeding the planet. Pierre has lived and travelled for work to more than 15 countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia, leading humanitarian aid and development assistance initiatives. Pierre is bilingual in French and English and holds a Ph.D. in Physical Geography & Rural Planning from Montpellier University in France and a Master of Geography and Environment from Cheikh Anta Diop University in Senegal.