Food sovereignty is Africa’s only solution to climate chaos

To tackle the interconnected food and climate crises it faces, Africa needs to break its ruinous dependence on food imports and support local, agroecologically based production.


Africa’s food forecast over the next decades is troubling. The continent will need more food to cope with a growing population that the United Nations projects will rise from 1.2 billion to 1.7 billion over the next decade.1 But, as this demand for food surges ahead, the increasing effects of climate change will make food production on the continent more difficult. Estimates are that global warming could cause a 10-20% reduction in Africa’s overall food production.2

If nothing is done to reverse course, Africa’s food imports will soar. The African Development Bank expects that Africa’s net food imports will triple between now and 2025, reaching over $110 billion.3 The United Nations predicts that Africa may only produce just 13% of its food needs by 2050.4

African countries are already well aware of how vulnerable this dependence on food imports leaves them. In 2007, a set of weather shocks in Asia set off a cascade of actions that spiked the price of rice on the international market, with ripple effects on other cereals. Africa, which accounts for about a third of global imports of rice and wheat, was hit hard. The rise in prices was too much for millions of Africans to absorb and food riots broke out across the continent, from Ouagadougou to Cairo, Maputo to Abidjan, and Dakar to Nouakchott. In Nairobi, a protest over rising prices for basic foods, called the “Unga Revolution” (Maize Flour Revolution), began in 2008 and lasted until 2011.5

Climate change will make such global food price spikes more frequent and will push international prices for basic food commodities upwards. Consider maize, one of the world’s most heavily traded agricultural commodities and an important staple food for much of Africa. Until recently, yields of maize were relatively stable in the main maize-producing areas of the world and serious climate-induced yield reductions were rare. But with the warming of the planet, the chances of major crop losses are increasing, as are the chances of simultaneous crop losses in the large maize-exporting areas, such as North America and the Southern Cone of Latin America. Researchers with the US Department of Atmospheric Sciences estimate that the probability for simultaneous major production losses in the large maize-exporting countries in any given year is virtually zero under present-day climate conditions but rises to 7% with 2°C of warming and 86% with 4°C of warming.6

If one set of faraway, isolated weather shocks was enough to cause food riots across Africa in 2007-08, imagine what this would look like in the coming decades, if the climate crisis deepens and hundreds of millions more Africans are dependent on imports of basic foods. This is an unfolding crisis of epic proportions that needs immediate action.

The future does not have to look like this. There are complementary actions that can be taken inside and outside of Africa to ensure that Africa has the capacity to feed itself in the years to come. Yes, the climate crisis will make and is already making food production on the continent more challenging and will increase the frequency and severity of weather shocks such as floods and droughts. But the extent of these impacts can be greatly lessened if fast and deep reductions are made to global greenhouse gas emissions in the main polluting countries.

Such reductions will require a profound transformation of the global food system – from a model that favours the industrialized production of cheap commodities that are processed and shipped to Africa and other parts of the world, to a model based on agroecological production and local food systems. In this sense, Africa’s farmers, fisherpeople and pastoralists are a leading example for the rest of the world to follow. They are already using agroecological methods to mitigate and build resilience in the face of climate extremes. And they are more than capable of feeding the entire continent, even in the face of the growing climate crises. What they require is access to sufficient and appropriate lands, water, fish stocks and seeds, paired with policies and programmes that support them and can ensure that food gets to where it is needed. It sounds simple but these basic measures towards food sovereignty are precisely what is not being done.

Food self-sufficiency moves back onto the agenda

Africa’s dependence on food imports is a recent phenomenon. In the 1980s, under pressure from the former colonial powers and the multilateral lending agencies, African governments abandoned local agriculture and food systems, opened the door to massive imports and aid shipments of cereals and other basic foods, and channelled the remaining state support into exports of a few cash crops (cotton, coffee, cacao, oil palm, rubber etc.). The result was that, between 1980 and 2007, Africa’s food production did not keep up with its population growth and its food deficit grew at an average of 3.4% per year. Over that period, Africa went from having a balance of agricultural exports and imports to a $22 billion food deficit.7

It is important to recognize that the majority of these food imports are for staple foods, particularly cereals like rice, maize and wheat, and dairy and meat products, meaning that much of Africa is now heavily reliant on food imports (and/or food aid) for its food security.8 Moreover, by the turn of the century, over a quarter of Africa’s population was considered chronically hungry.9

African heads of state came together in 2003 in a first effort to try and come to terms with this intolerable situation. They launched a Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and committed to investing 10% of their national budgets in agriculture and rural development.10 But these commitments on paper did not translate (and have still not translated) into much concrete action.11

Then came the 2007-08 global food crisis. With their populations rioting in the streets over food prices, African governments once again promised urgent measures to ramp up food supplies and domestic production, with some even promising to bring back the long-lost days of food self-sufficiency.12

In the aftermath of this food crisis, several major initiatives to boost national food production were launched in Africa, most of them closely coordinated with foreign donors and multilateral agencies. Some of these initiatives are continental, like the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in Africa or the African Development Bank’s Feed Africa Strategy. Others are regional, like the “Rice Offensive” of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), or national, like the Grande Offensive agricole pour la nourriture et l’abondance (GOANA) launched by Senegal’s former President Abdoulaye Wade. Certain African governments have also enacted policy measures to curb food imports and support domestic production that were not on the table prior to the crisis, such as food reserves, targeted import duties, quotas, foreign exchange controls and even bans on specific food items.

But, despite the impressive names of these various initiatives, most have fallen far short of their ambitions. There have been some gains in production, but imports of cereals and other basic foods continue to grow in many African countries. Part of the problem is that these initiatives have not done enough to protect local production from the dumping of cheap imports. Most measures were either temporary, open to abuse from large traders and smugglers, or simply too weak and backed up with too few resources to make a difference. Moreover, many African governments have signed on to and/or are negotiating trade agreements that make it much harder to implement food import restrictions and protections for local food producers, including the recently launched African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).13

The corporate model falls apart

The other major defect with these post-food crisis initiatives is their focus on big business. Over the past decade, African governments, at the behest of outside donors, have changed laws and regulations, granted tax breaks, handed out lands and money and set up special economic zones with the hope of attracting investment from agribusiness corporations. But, 10 years on, it is clear that this strategy has not worked. The private investment that was promised in return for these policies and handouts, whether in contract farming schemes or plant breeding, has either not materialized or failed badly.14

Consider the case of rice. Rice is not a traditional staple crop for most of the continent, but urbanization and cheap imports from Asia and the US have contributed to a galloping rise in consumption across the continent over the past 50 years. Production has failed to keep up with consumption and today Africa imports about half of what it consumes, spending roughly $3.5 billion a year on rice imports.

With the spike in rice prices in 2007-08, Africa’s political class had little choice but to take action to reduce the import bill. But any efforts that might favour local production over imports had to run up against the interests of the powerful cartel of transnational trading companies and local business elites that control the lucrative rice trade into Africa. So, rather than take on these forces, many African governments chose instead to enlist them in their strategies to reinvigorate national rice production.

These strategies to lower tariffs for companies investing in local rice production have done little to curb imports and have resulted in a shockingly long list of corporate rice farming projects that have gone bust across Africa in recent years. The projects wasted millions of dollars in public funds and deprived African farmers of lands and water to produce food. They undermined, rather than supported, African government pledges to reduce rice deficits.15

Mali is the one country in West Africa that has achieved its rice self-sufficiency targets, but this was done despite the actions of big business. All of the corporate rice farm projects announced in Mali after the 2007-08 food crisis failed.16 Mali’s path to self-sufficiency was achieved only through the political struggle and hard work of its small-scale rice farmers. They seized on the rice crisis of 2007-08 to put in place a national rice platform led by rice farmers, which then pushed the government into taking measures to restrict imports and support farmers in increasing domestic rice production, mainly by ensuring access for small farmers to lands and water and by getting the government to purchase local rice for its national rice reserves. The rice farmers also teamed up with the small-scale millers, merchants, transporters and other actors involved in local rice markets to educate consumers on the benefits of local rice, and they have fought a constant battle to keep the big trading companies from reopening the doors to imports.17

Egypt is another rice self-sufficient country in Africa, but with a much longer record. At the time of the rice price crisis in 2007-08, Egypt was actually exporting significant volumes. Much of the country’s rice crop is purchased for the national food subsidy programme, which provides discounted staple foods to nearly two-thirds of the country’s households. When international food prices spiked in 2007-08, the price of bread shot up because Egypt is one of the world’s top importers of wheat, but the government was able to partially offset this hike in the price of bread by blocking rice exports and keeping its population supplied with affordable local rice, despite efforts by the grain traders to keep their export channels open.18

What stands out in Egypt and Mali’s rice self-sufficiency stories is the marginal role of big agribusiness and food companies. The main actors here are smallholder farmers and, in the case of Mali, a vast web of small traders and retailers, or, in the case of Egypt, a state purchase and distribution system. Both governments also regulated trade, and big business was not able to set the agenda on rice policy.19 This shows that food self-sufficiency is achieved through government support of local production, not through corporate agribusiness and international trade.

These are simple and low-cost ways that African governments can get behind their food producers and support them in providing high-quality, locally grown food for their populations, without having to depend on foreign donors. Yet most African governments remain entirely focused on supporting agribusiness corporations. Not only do they provide these companies with tax incentives and corporate-friendly regulations and policies, but they are even giving corporations their country’s most fertile lands and important water sources.

It is incredible that, in the face of a climate crisis and population boom, African governments have, over the past 10 years, given away over 10 million hectares of fertile lands to foreign companies to produce foods for export. These large-scale land grabs were mostly undertaken without consulting the rural communities that live on the lands and have deprived them of the access they need, now and in the future, to land, forests and water sources to feed their communities and supply local markets.20

Corporate seeds are no cure for climate change

When it comes to seeds, African governments have similarly spent the past two decades complying with demands from the big seed companies to make their laws and regulations corporate-friendly, under heavy pressure from the World Bank, foreign governments and major donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The justification was always that such changes would drive private investment into plant breeding on the continent and provide farmers with improved varieties. But this investment is not happening. Instead, the number of formal plant breeders is in decline, even in some of Africa’s biggest seed markets, and the vast majority of Africa’s plant breeders are still working in the public sector. Moreover, the private sector is almost exclusively focused on plant breeding for big money-making hybrid crops like maize, and is hardly present when it comes to important traditional food crops that are more resilient to climate change like millet.21 Meanwhile, the legal and regulatory changes that governments have implemented for the seed companies have damaged and even criminalized Africa’s dynamic and innovative farmer seed systems, which continue to account for 80% of Africa’s seed supply.22

Malawi provides a painful lesson of why programmes to boost local food production with corporate seeds do not work. A little over a decade ago, Malawi launched a national programme to distribute subsidized maize seeds and fertilizers to its farmers. Initially the programme focused on varieties bred by national scientists. But soon, after much pressure from the US government and the World Bank, the programme became focused on hybrid maize sold by Monsanto and the Seed Co., a company from Zimbabwe.

The first thing that Monsanto did when entering the country was to buy up the national seed company that had developed open-pollinated and hybrid maize varieties adapted to the local agroecosystems. Monsanto dropped the local varieties from circulation and pushed its own, patented varieties instead, even though some of the local varieties were much more productive than its own.  Over the years, Monsanto, together with the companies that import and distribute chemical fertilizers, became the main beneficiaries of the government’s seed and fertilizer subsidy programme.

With Monsanto in control, the yields of hybrid maize went down, the soils were depleted, and, during the 2015-16 drought and flooding seasons, the maize crops were almost entirely destroyed. In many places across Malawi, farmers are now moving back to local seed varieties, composting and reintroducing traditional crops that were left behind by the subsidy programmes, such as legumes that build soil fertility and hardy crops like cassava and millet.23

A vision for Africa’s food systems in an era of climate crisis

Any policy or programme that is going to effectively deal with the twin food and climate crises bearing down on Africa has to focus on the main actors in Africa’s food system. Africa’s food producers (small farmers, fisherpeople and pastoralists) and local markets still supply 80% of the food that is produced and consumed on the continent.24 Africa’s food supply relies primarily on the knowledge, seeds, animals, soils and local biodiversity that are maintained by Africa’s small food producers. And Africa’s growing number of urban consumers depend on the small traders and street food vendors to ensure their access to these foods. It is critical to note that the vast majority of these actors in Africa’s food systems are women.25

Africa’s food systems, based largely on agroecological practices and short circuits, are the ultimate in green, low-emission and resilient systems, and they supply diets that are among the healthiest on the planet.26 Despite a policy environment that is designed to crush them, Africa’s food systems are also the continent’s economic engine, providing more livelihoods, jobs and revenue than any other sector.27 Food imports, on the other hand, are a huge revenue drain on Africa’s scarce foreign reserves (which, it needs to be said, are generated in large part from the sale of fossil fuels).

Africa’s local food systems are what sustains the continent today, and what can sustain it into the future. The climate crisis will increasingly challenge these systems, especially if global greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world are not seriously reduced. African food producers will have to continue to adapt their practices and knowledge to cope with a changing and unpredictable climate. Local markets will have to integrate emergency reserves and other measures to ensure people’s access to food and livelihoods during extreme weather events like floods and droughts. These are difficult but not insurmountable issues, and already there are many inspiring initiatives being implemented across the continent to prepare for climate change.28

It is important to recognize that the climate crisis requires approaches to adaptation that support Africa’s food systems and are led by Africa’s small-scale food producers, not approaches that rely heavily on chemical inputs and seeds sold by multinational companies, such as those often described as “climate-smart” and promoted by programmes like A Green Revolution for Africa (AGRA).

It is also crucial to recognize that adaptation is a secondary issue. It should not get the outsized attention it receives in governmental circles when climate change and Africa’s food systems are on the agenda. The single most important and effective way to protect African food systems from global warming is to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. Given that Africa, as a whole, contributes less than 4% of global emissions, this is obviously something that has to happen outside of the continent.29 And, because the industrial food system is associated with up to half of all global emissions, and is the leading cause of species collapse, deforestation and habitat destruction worldwide, this reduction has to involve a wholesale transformation of the global food system.30

Meaningful climate action in the industrialized countries means an end to the surplus production of the food commodities that are dumped in Africa. Meaningful climate action in Africa means putting an end to the import of these surplus food commodities. The two actions go hand in hand; the solution in the North and the South is food sovereignty.

This is the uncomfortable truth that is always left out of high-level governmental discussions and policy processes. In this year’s report by the European Commission’s Task Force Rural Africa, for instance, there is plenty of discussion about how to help African farmers to adapt to climate change but no mention of how the exports and greenhouse gas emissions from Europe’s food system undermine Africa’s food production and its capacity to weather the climate crisis.31 It is politically more expedient to tell small farmers in Africa what to do (“no slash and burn agriculture”, “use ‘climate-smart’ GMO seeds”) than it is to deal with the massive emissions produced by the big food and agribusiness corporations back home.

African governments are unfortunately mostly singing along with this chorus. Instead of resisting, they are facilitating Africa’s integration into the supply chains of the global food and agribusiness corporations: keeping their borders open to the dumping of surplus food commodities and ultra-processed foods, handing out fertile lands for industrial plantations of oil palm, sugarcane and animal feed crops, and criminalizing the practices of small vendors and farmers.32 There are some hopeful exceptions, such as in Burkina Faso where the government recently put in place a decree requiring public institutions, such as school canteens, to procure only locally produced foods.33 But a much deeper and complete reorientation of public policy by African governments is needed to facilitate and support the necessary transition towards food sovereignty.

As it now stands, the actors in Africa’s food systems – the pastoralists and the butchers, the farmers and open-air market vendors, the small-scale fishers and street food hawkers, the farm labourers and women preparing food at home – are going to have to take matters into their own hands. They need to urgently come together, with the support of movements for climate justice, to build and implement a vision for how to respond to the climate crisis and to the interconnected food crisis that Africa faces.

This process is already well underway. Africa’s rural social movements have articulated and come together around a number of demands and principles over recent years that can serve as a basis for a vision for Africa’s food systems in an era of climate crisis. The Nyéléni Peasant Agroecology Manifesto, for instance, which was adopted by numerous national and regional African peasant and fisherfolk organizations in 2017, provides a clear path towards food sovereignty and climate resilience.34 The vision is already being put into action by social movements in different parts of Africa, from campaigns to eat-local to struggles against corporate land grabs to fights against the entry of transnational supermarket chains. Such interconnected actions are immediately required to break Africa’s dependence on food imports, advance food sovereignty and, in so doing, effectively deal with the climate crisis.           

GRAIN is a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. The above is extracted from a report published on its website

     GRAIN wishes to thank Andrew Adem, Nyoni Ndabezinhle, Mariann Bassey, Mamadou Goïta and David Calleb Otieno for their inputs into this report.


1. United Nations, “Population 2030: Demographic challenges and opportunities for sustainable development planning”, 2015:

2. UNEP, “Africa’s Adaptation Gap: Climate-change impacts, adaptation challenges and costs for Africa”, November 2013:

3. AfDB, “Feed Africa Strategy”,

4. Richard Munang and Jesica Andrews, “L’Afrique face au changement climatique”, AfriqueRenouveau, 2014:

5. Reuters, “Kenyan police fire tear gas at food protesters”, July 2011:

6. Michelle Tigchelaar et al., “Future warming increases probability of globally synchronized maize production shocks”, PNAS, May 2018:

7. Manitra A. Rakotoarisoa, Massimo Iafrate and Marianna Paschali, “Why has Africa become a net food importer?”, FAO, 2011:

8. Ibid.

9. NEPAD, “Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme”, November 2002:

10. See the Maputo Declaration:; and NEPAD, “Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme”, November 2002:

11. By 2010, only eight African governments had reached the 10% commitment and, as noted by ActionAid, the overwhelming policy focus was on supporting agribusiness, not the real needs of African farmers. See ActionAid, “Fair shares: is CAADP working?”, May 2013:

12. Africa was not alone in this resurgent interest in food self-sufficiency. See Jennifer Clapp, “Food self-sufficiency: Making sense of it, and when it makes sense”, Food Policy, January 2017:

13. GRAIN, “Colonialism’s new clothes: The EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements with Africa”, 21 August 2017:

14. See, for example, Laurence Caramel, “Pourquoi la France s’est retirée de la Nouvelle Alliance pour la sécurité alimentaire”, December 2018: (also available in English:

15. See table “Failed corporate rice farms in Africa” in the annex of GRAIN, “Food sovereignty is Africa’s only solution to climate chaos”, July 2019:

16. See Florence Brondeau, “The Office du Niger: an Agropole project for food security in Mali?”, Cybergeo: Revue européenne de géographie / European journal of geography, UMR 8504:

17. Conversation with Mamadou Goïta, May 2019.

18. Ahmed Farouk Ghoneim, “The Political Economy of Food Price Policy in Egypt”, 2014: DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198718574.003.0012

19. Note, however, that in 2018, the government of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi slashed the area allocated to domestic rice production by more than half and then approved the import of rice. See: Eric Knecht and Maha El Dahan, “Egypt’s rice farmers see rough times downstream of new Nile mega-dam”, Reuters, April 2018:

20. GRAIN, “The global farmland grab in 2016: how big, how bad?”, June 2016:

21. See the various country reports of The African Seed Access Index:

22. See GRAIN and AFSA, “The real seeds producers: Small-scale farmers save, use, share and enhance the seed diversity of the crops that feed Africa”, September 2018:; and GRAIN and AFSA, “Land and seed laws under attack: Who is pushing changes in Africa?”, January 2015:

23. For more information and a fascinating account of Malawi’s subsidy programme and the responses of the farmers, see Timothy A. Wise, Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food, 2019:

24. FAO, “Smallholders and family farmers”, 2012:

25. GRAIN, “Supermarkets out! Food systems are doing just fine without them”, November 2018:

26. Bee Wilson, “Good enough to eat? The toxic truth about modern food”, The Guardian, March 2019:

27. GRAIN, “Supermarkets out! Food systems are doing just fine without them”, November 2018:

28. LVC-SEAf and Afrika Kontakt, “Peasant agroecology achieves climate justice: a primer”, May 2018:

29. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability.

30. On biodiversity loss and deforestation, see Greenpeace, “Countdown to extinction: What will it take to get companies to act?”, June 2019:

2019.pdf. On greenhouse gas emissions, see GRAIN, “Food and climate change: the forgotten link”, 28 September 2011:

31. EC’s Task Force Rural Africa, “An Africa-Europe agenda for rural transformation”, March 2019:

32. One example is the Kenyan government’s proposed Crops (Food Crops) Regulations. See Graham Kajilwa and Michael Chepkwony, “Farmers, traders at a loss as State moots punitive rules”, March 2019:

33. See ROPPA et al., “La bataille de consommer local en Afrique de l’Ouest”, January 2019:


Third World Economics, Issue No. 686, 1-15 April 2019, p10-13, 16