Opinion

Is it the end of agrifood market globalisation?

Ruerd Ruben

Radical transformation in African food systems

Five megatrends are rapidly influencing the development prospects for food and nutrition in the African continent, and together they shape an uncertain future for agrifood markets. 

First, rapid urbanisation. The urban population in sub-Sahara Africa is growing fast, and cities are expected to host more than half of the total population within the next 10 years. From 1950 to today, the share of urban residents has increased from 14% to 40%. Poverty is an enormous problem in African cities. According to the African Economic Outlook (published by the African Development Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development and the United Nations Development Program), 62 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population lives in slums. The urban poor face large challenges, such as food and health risks, due to poor living conditions and overcrowding.  

Second, supermarket penetration. Urban residents purchase an increasing share of their food through formal retail outlets, even while some products are still purchased at open markets or even on the street. Urban middle class consumers that experience rising incomes also have preferences to purchase more nutrient and vitamin dense foods, like vegetables, pulses, dairy, poultry and eggs, and fish. They might even prefer supermarket outlets because of convenience and perceived food safety reasons.  Smallholder producers face difficulties for selling to supermarkets if they cannot satisfy scale and quality criteria; other producers are engaged in supermarket deliveries through contract farming arrangements. 

Third, diet transition. Many urban people are involved in multiple jobs and tend to rely increasingly on purchased foods. Instead of consuming traditional staples and starchy roots (cassava, yam), the consumption package is rapidly shifting towards imported and more processed foods. Rapid urbanisation also modified food consumption patterns, with an increasing demand for imported staple food, especially wheat and rice, but also potatoes. Consequently, the dietary intake of items like sugar, transfats and salt is generally increasing with greater reliance in diets on processed foods, prepared meals and soft drinks. 

Fourth, triple burden of malnutrition. This refers to the coexistence of chronic undernutrition (stunting, wasting) along with micronutrient deficiencies (mainly iron, zinc and Vitamin A) and the rise of overweight and obesity that give rise to diet-related non-communicable diseases. Limited access to healthy foods and the unbalanced composition of diets make poor people vulnerable for both undernutrition and overweight along their life course. In sub-Saharan Africa, 28% of children under 5 years of age are moderately or severely underweight with 38% of children under five stunted. These numbers have not significantly changed since 1990; meanwhile global obesity prevalence has doubled in African countries since 1980. 

Fifth, growing food import bill. Africa currently spends 35 billion US dollars in importing food. It is projected that imports will grow to 110 billion US dollars by 2025. The continent imports about 28% of its calorie requirements; major imports are wheat (58% of requirements), rice (41% of require-ments) and oils (54% of requirements). More than 40% of the items on supermarket shelves are imported. Local food is produced at large distance from urban consumption centres, and local transport costs are sometimes higher than international freight tariffs. Moreover, overvalued exchange rates tend to favour imports beyond local purchase.   

 These five megatrends together shape an uncertain future for African agrifood markets. While urban demand for imported and processed foods is rapidly increasing, local producers are only partially capable in responding to these opportunities. Linkages between producers and retailers remain relatively weak and therefore the diet transition may be accompanied by increasing food imports. 

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.