How can a circular economy contribute to food security in Africa?

Published in the Exchange

During the last decades a lot has been said about the urgency to develop the African agricultural sector to meet the increasing need for food security in Africa. Frequently it is stressed that Africa largely missed the “Green Revolution” since the African agriculture sector did not transform into an intensive agriculture with modern technologies to increase the crop yield significantly1. Until today the East African agricultural sector is dominated for 75% by smallholders that apply low farming inputs, traditional technologies and farming methods, while agriculture remains the backbone of the economy2. This article discusses a reason for optimism, and how a circular economy – which aims close to the loop of resources through the establishment of restorative and regenerative systems- , can contribute to food security and food productivity in (East) Africa. 

Africa missed the “Green Revolution”: an opportunity to implement circular food systems in Africa 

In contrast to other countries and continents, the Sub-Saharan Africa largely missed the ‘Green Revolution’ in the 19th century into intensive agriculture to increase the crop yield1. As a result that the African continent can not keep the pace of with the needs of the growing population1, while it also generates high quantities of food loses due to poor farming and post-harvesting handling techniques. 

However, on the other hand, the “Green Revolution” in developed countries starts to result in a catastrophic solution to produce food. First of all, it is a shocking fact that due to industrial farming, the price of food can change through the fluctuation of oil price. The oil price affects agricultural prices directly and indirectly, for instance through the price of fuel and fertilizers3. According to FAO “agricultural commodity prices are becoming increasingly correlated with the price of oil” 3. Especially developing countries that are net importers of petroleum products are highly affected by the high oil prices, which results in increased costs in agricultural production and thus aggravates the existing food crisis4. Secondly, research has proven that pesticides and intensive farming are important causes that results in an enormous decline in bee populations5. As a result, that some farmers are already forced to pollinate crops by hand, which would not be economically possible in the most part of the world. Following that, the award-winning movie “More than honey” even stressed that “a third of everything would not be there if there were no bees”6. Intensive farming does not have only consequences for our production and (insect)-biodiversity, but also on our health. A recent study has proven that American consumers with an organic diet for 6 days (food produced without pesticides and other chemicals) have 70% lower levels of glyphosate in their body than consumers with a non-organic diet. Glyphosate is a globally used pesticide that is classified as a human carcinogen for cancer and can increase the risk of other health concerns7.  

In sum, the missed “Green Revolution” in the African agricultural sector is an opportunity to learn from the consequences of intensive and industrial farming in other countries, and to move to sustainable, regenerative and circular farming practices to produce healthy food. In this article, Circular Africa highlight three circular solutions what can be done to increase food security and food production in Africa through a circular economy approach.

Solution 1. Convert organic waste and agricultural by-products into sustainable farming inputs and products

African cities are under high pressure due to increasingly growing urban populations with an increasing demand for food, which results in waste accumulation in cities. Only in Nairobi, the inhabitants produce more than 3,000 tonnes of waste a day8. It is estimated that Kenya’s population will grow from 53.8 million in 2020 to 91.6 million, with an urban population of 48% in 20509. Waste accumulation in fasting growing cities can even result in other threats such as diseases and other health concerns. Organic waste of urban areas can be transformed into compost, organic fertilizers and insect-based animal feed by growing black soldier flies on organic waste. Since the rural farming areas are acknowledged by low agricultural inputs, there is an enormous potential to transform organic waste of the urban area into organic inputs for farming in the rural areas. The utilization of inexpensive organic inputs such as organic fertilizers and compost can result in a significant productivity increase for small scale farmers. Furthermore, circular economy solutions can also be used across different sectors, for instance, organic waste of the urban areas can also be utilized as other solutions such as bio-briquettes and biogas as an alternative for firewood and other energy resources. Solutions do not need to restrict to only organic waste of the urban areas, also agricultural by-products of the food processing industries can be utilized to generate new products. 

These solutions are a win-win situation for farmers, urban and rural area’s since it helps farmers to increase the farming productivity with inexpensive inputs. On the other hand, cities can create new business opportunities by the utilization of waste into new business solutions, while it also creates a healthier and safer city. To do so, research is needed to study the different food systems, value chains and infrastructures to unlock the business potentials.  

Solution 2. Design efficient food systems to reduce food lost and post-harvest lost

Food and organic waste do not only take place in the city, food waste and lost also occurs in the value chains. In contrast to high income countries, food waste and loss in developing counties occurs for two-thirds of production and handling storage of the food. In 2009, 39 percent of the food lost or food waste of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa happens in the production, 37 percent in handling and storage, 7 percent in processing, 13 percent in distribution and market and only 5 percent in the consumption10. Solutions such as improved farming practices, improved post-harvest handling techniques (e.g. cold storage and drying techniques), adding value to agricultural commodities through food processing play crucial to reduce food and post-harvest lost. 

Solution 3. Regenerative farming

Circular agriculture does not need restrict itself to reduce post-harvest lost, organic-, food waste, but it also includes regenerative farming practices at farm level. Circular agriculture can be considered as an ecosystem, whereby crops and animals (livestock) live together in a closed system. For instance, organic duck farming with ducks, whereby the ducks eat the insects and the rice takes up the residues of the ducks11. As a result, that the farmer does not only create an income from the rice but also from the ducks (meat and eggs). Other examples include solutions such as mixed farm systems, aquaculture (crops and fish a grown in closed ecosystem), intercropping, agroforestry, which are also upcoming initiatives across the region. In the next articles, Circular Africa will discuss the three different solutions with a currently implemented business cases in East Africa.

In sum, the missed “Green Revolution” is an opportunity to transform the (East) African food system into a healthy and circular food system to increase food security & productivity. Are you ready for the Green Revolution?

Author: Elke Nijman

Would you like to learn more about the circular food systems? Click here

Would you like to learn more about if East Africa can leapfrog to circular economy? Click here

References of this article

  1. Frankema, E. (2013). Africa and the Green Revolution A Global Historical Perspective. NJAS – Wageningen J. Life Sci. (2014), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.njas.2014.01.003
  2. EAC (2012). Climate Change Policy. Retrieved from https://www.eac.int/documents/category/environment-and-natural-resources
  3. FAO. (2011). Price Volatility in Food and Agricultural Markets: Policy Responses. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/templates/est/Volatility/Interagency_Report_to_the_G20_on_Food _Price_Volatility.pdf
  4. IMF. (2008). The Balance of Payments Impact of the Food and Fuel Price Shocks on LowIncome African Countries: A Country-by-Country Assessment. Retrieved from https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/Policy-Papers/Issues/2016/12/31/The-Balance-ofPayments-Impact-of-the-Food-and-Fuel-Price-Shocks-on-Low-Income-African-PP4267
  5. Deutsche Welle. (2014). Bees on the brink. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/pollinating-by-hand-doing-bees-work/a-17822242
  6. Deutsche Welle. (2014). Saving bees. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/bees-and-humans-need-each-other/a-17391639#:%7E:text=The%20bee’s%20plight%20is%20alarming,by%20Swiss%20director%20Markus%20Imhoof.
  7. Fagan, J., Bohlen, L., Patton, S., & Klein, K. (2020). Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary glyphosate levels in U.S. children and adults. Environmental Research, 109898. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2020.109898
  8. GIZ. (2020, July 4). Kenya: Waste recycling experts. Retrieved from https://www.giz.de/en/mediacenter/78669.html
  9. Worldometer. (2020). Kenya Population (2020) – Worldometer. Retrieved from https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/kenya-population/
  10. Lipinski, B., Hanson, C., Kitinoja, L., Waite, R., & Searchinger , T. (2013). Reducing Food Loss and Waste. Retrieved from https://wriorg.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fspublic/reducing_food_loss_and_waste.pdf
  11. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation. (n.d.). Case studies. https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/case-studies/ecosystem-inspired-farm-yields-large-profits

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