David Phiri (PhD) is FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Eastern Africa (SFE) and Representative to the African Union (AU) and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). Prior to this post, Phiri was FAO Sub-regional Coordinator for Southern Africa and Representative to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Botswana. He joined FAO in 1991 as Policy Economist and then served in the Cabinet of the FAO Director‐General. EBR’s Ashenafi Endale sat down with him to understand threats to the food security situation in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Originally from Malawi, David Phiri specialized in Agricultural Economics.
It has now been over a year since desert locust swarmed East African countries. What does FAO’s impact assessment show, particularly on Ethiopian agriculture?
We have been closely monitoring the situation since it appeared in Somalia, and then went to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and back to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. The situation remains very alarming. There were already 28 million people in acute hunger and in need of food assistance in East Africa due to drought and conflict issues before locust and Covid-19. It is difficult to disentangle because there were many crises happening at the same time. This is in addition to the 133 million people that are chronically food insecure and survive with one meal a day or less than the required nutrition.
So far, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are highly affected by desert locust. Thousands of hectares of croplands and pastures have been affected. The Desert locust also affected Djibouti, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. We know that many parts of Ethiopia especially the Southern and Eastern parts are highly affected by the locust going and coming back. It is really a bad situation in Ethiopia. As Eastern Africa, especially Ethiopia is receiving some rain, farmers start growing crop and vegetation. This means the desert locust has more food and can still continue breeding. Unless it is controlled as of now, the number of desert locusts will rise to 200 times what it is now.
Do you think East African countries have the capacity and concerted cooperation to control the reproduction and spreading rate of the desert locust and its impact on agriculture?
Yes, they have the capacity with the support of their partners including FAO. Mind you, Ethiopia and Somalia did not have desert locust in 25 years. Kenya also did not have this magnitude of locusts in over 70 years. Of course, the countries have lost their capacity. We have to retrain them now. FAO has to provide all these governments with surveillance and spray aircrafts, pesticide chemical and even jet fuel. We, for instance, handed over five aircrafts for the Ethiopian government. We are doing this across the region to support all countries.
Do you think Eastern African countries have the required food reserve to feed large portion of population, if the problem continues for longer period under locust and Covid-19? Do you think there is enough food reserve at national and regional level?
Covid-19 will complicate the food sequestration even more. Eastern Africa did not have enough food to feed the people in need even in pre-Covid-19 circumstances as 135 million people were in need of chronic food assistance. Covid-19 is going to be worse. FAO and AU convened together for a meeting of African Ministers for agriculture. We reached agreement that it is critical to continue agricultural production even under lockdown and restriction. They must allow farmers to continue cultivating crops and allow people and businesspersons move from place to place in order to produce more. International borders also must stay open for movements at least for food and inputs needed to develop crop.
Countries have to contain Covid-19 spread but we also do not want people to die of hunger. We must do both. While farmers keep growing crops, governments also need to increase food storing at critical spots, at least for emergency food. They may not have sufficient stored food now. However, they all must be able to feed their people, if the Covid-19 continues.
I must say that I am very pleased Ethiopia has been one of the countries that have been providing food for vulnerable people under its social protection program. Rwanda, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda and other countries are also doing well in providing food to the most affected people. Those people who are unable to eat more than once a day will be more vulnerable to access any food, if the Covid-19 gets worse.
The agricultural sector in Ethiopia faced different setbacks due to El Niño, internal displacement, drought, locust and now Covid-19. The Ethiopian government says agricultural output has been growing at six percent annually. Do you agree that with rain-fed and subsistence small scale farming Ethiopia can provide surplus for the fast increasing population, in addition to those external impacts?
Despite all the changes in circumstances, the commitment of the Ethiopian government resulted in a phenomenal agricultural growth over the past ten years. This has contributed to the reduction of food insecurity to the extent that the number of people in food assistance in Ethiopia reduced to around eight million now from 13 million people a couple of years ago. Such a drastic change is achieved due to government’s effort to increase agricultural output.
Is it sufficient?
No. with all the climate change, internal difficulties and predictions of the rainy seasons, this will be difficult. We need mechanisms to grow crop even when sufficient rain is not there.
This is where the importance of irrigation must be stressed. Because even when there is no rain but drought, farmers must be able to produce crops. I am happy there are a lot of efforts the government has taken to improve the water control and irrigation in the country. What is needed is to do more on this regard and scale up the efforts, although it requires a lot of resource. Irrigation is the way out for agriculture to be less dependent on rain.
Agricultural financing is also a chronic problem in Africa. A lot of international organizations provide aid support at times of relief and emergency times in Africa. They provide a lot of aid fund more than the agricultural investment in Africa. Why do those organizations fail to fill the agricultural financing gap in Africa before the emergency times come?
FAO advocates prevention is better than cure. True that international financing for agriculture in Africa is important, so people can grow their own food, instead of providing them food when they are in problem. But international financing of agriculture from developed countries is divided into two different categories. There is the emergency fund and development fund.
The development fund finances other things in general and the emergency fund comes out only at crisis times to save lives, which is important. FAO recommends teaching people to grow their own food using resources availed by their governments as well as supports from international community than waiting until the crisis bursts.
Through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP), African states committed to allocate 10Pct of their national budget for agriculture. There are only eight African countries who met the commitment, in the whole of Africa. Fortunately Ethiopia is one. But African states must at least meet the portion they have committed.
How much funding is required to address the current food crisis and how much of it is accessed so far?
Our estimation is around 40Pct of the total requirement will be external fund, by international community, at any times of crisis. With respect to desert locust, many organizations and countries have been generous. We already mobilized 80Pct of the funding resource required for locust. Now we can support the East African countries that are affected by locust. But our problem now is complicated under Covid-19.
This is because we have to import everything needed to control locust spread. To make things worse, the import process is hugely delayed due to border closures under Covid-19. It is very difficult to find inputs now than ever and also to trade those inputs face to face due to the social distancing.
How much is the total cost required to control the desert locust spread?
For now, it is USD140 million. But this will go up even within the next ten days. But we are happy that states and the private sector are supporting the effort.
What are your policy recommendations for African countries in mitigating the impacts of Covid-19?
A lot of households will be in danger of food shortage under Covid-19. Unique social protection designs are critical under the circumstances. It could be cash transfer, direct food supply, or other modality like some other countries are doing. This is urgent. If the food scarcity worsens, the health efforts cannot succeed.
First, food or cash must be availed for every vulnerable population. Second, agricultural production must not be constrained in anyway. The food supply chain must remain active. Agricultural inputs also must continue, so farmers can produce. Farmers also need transportation and places to store food harvests. Thirdly, the regional food and input supply chains must remain open.
There are Eastern African countries dependent on import of food as well as input supply. We must make sure that the borders remain open only for food and agricultural inputs. This is very important that regional and domestic agricultural value chains remain open at any time, exclusively.
Nutritional foods also must be availed in the value chain, especially in the effort to fight Covid-19. Agricultural productivity per hectare also must increase substantially, since not all the farmers will be able to cultivate all the arable lands. Covid-19 is here, probably for more time than we know. But it must not affect the food sector.
Do you think Eastern African economies have regional coordination in infrastructure, agriculture and even maintaining regional food reserve at such times of emergency?
We have regional economic communities in the Eastern Africa region. There are the East African Community and IGAD. Politically and technically, they are really keeping well to support their members to work together. FAO recommends regional food reserves in addition to national food reserves. But the regional food reserve is usually insignificant. May be it is because they do not trust their neighbors or the people around it. This is a sovereign decision each country needs to make.
Is this due to lack of institutional arrangement?
Institutional arrangements are in place. For instance, IGAD has the Drought Disaster Resistance and Sustainability Initiative called IDRISI. It also has climate prediction and application center ICPAC. It has also IGAD Center for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development (ICPALD). But I do not believe that governments use the institutions effectively. It is up to the government to work alone or together. FAO works efficiently with both.
The agricultural policies of most African countries like Ethiopia stress capitalizing on small scale farmers to produce surplus. Do you think small scale can revolutionize and modernize the agriculture?
Yes. It is possible to increase production and productivity with small scale farmers and we understand why many countries emphasize on this. It is because most of their farmers practice small scale agriculture. But these countries must evolve agriculture policies from subsistence small scale agriculture to semi-commercial and finally to commercial agriculture; so they can produce more and better.
Small scale agriculture is advantageous if we could support and fund them to turn themselves to produce for market in order to make profit and gradually become commercial farmers. FAO is trying to this direction. I want African governments to commit to act swiftly on locust and Covid-19, simultaneously. We must be able to contain the virus, control locust and keep producing. Agricultural production and food security must stay at the priority of governments, even under the worst scenarios ahead.
There is ongoing argument that African countries must adopt Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) to increase agricultural output substantially in a short time. Others oppose this saying GMOs destroy indigenous varieties and bring many damages. What is your take on this?
FAO’s policy is clear on GMO. We have technologies and capacities that can help produce surplus using indigenous varieties. But there are countries that use GMO to accelerate production and productivity in short time. We leave it to member states to decide whether they have to adopt GMOs or they don’t.
We have also the Codex Alementarius Commission, under which a committee is formed to look into the environmental and heath impact of any new technologies, including GMOs. So far, that committee has not found any such irregularities. The committee looks into the long term impact of such technologies. But the natural and biological biotechnologies existing globally are sufficient to produce the food we need, globally speaking. EBR
9th Year • May.16 – Jun.15 2020 • No. 86