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Challenges and opportunities for transforming agrifood systems discussed at FAO meet

Organised by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), representatives from food and agriculture systems across Africa virtually convened at the 2nd African Agribusiness Leadership Dialogue (AALD), discussing the challenges and opportunities around transforming agrifood systems in Africa. 

Over 80 private sector entities participated in the dialogue from over 20 countries across Africa. The meet was held to inform deliberations at the upcoming 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Africa (ARC32).

“The purpose of this event really aims at identifying the private sector’s perspective, to inform and shape all supporting policy interventions accordingly,” Abebe Haile-Gabriel, FAO assistant director-general and regional representative for Africa stated in his opening remarks. “This is even more relevant within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic that, for the past two years, has overwhelmed the agrifood sector, with critical consequences on the sustainability of the food systems as a whole.”

The FAO AALD 2022 brought together private investors, industry associations, and organisations across agricultural sectors to discuss some of the most pressing issues facing agribusiness in Africa and to share perspectives on key actions for transforming agrifood systems. Speakers addressed some of the ways in which agribusinesses might better contribute to more sustainable and integrated agrifood systems in Africa, and how these opportunities are situated within the challenging context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well as the climate crisis and rising levels of hunger.

“The African continent is on the path to integration, that is of great importance, especially, recovery and growth efforts,” said HE Beata Habyarimana, minister of Trade and Industry in Rwanda in her opening remarks.

Thabo Mabe, executive director of Dangote Flour Mills, was optimistic about the opportunities for agribusiness in Africa. “This is a very exciting time to be investing in agribusiness for Africa,” he said. “Agribusiness is a good business. Doing good is good business.” He also made a call to businesses for agile action to improve agrifood supply chains to avoid post-harvest losses from farm to table. 

Leveraging the private sector 

Two main subthemes that emerged during the dialogue: private sector priorities for trade and sustainable investment following from the COVID-19 pandemic, and leveraging agribusiness firms including smallholder farmers and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) to drive the inclusive transformation of food systems in Africa.

Agri-SMEs represent the bulk of food enterprises on the continent. What should be done to support and collaborate with them was a central question during the event and resulted in a variety of creative and innovative policy responses discussed in five breakout rooms.

Participants discussed further opportunities for stimulating trade and investment in agriculture and rural transformation and the challenges around promoting trade, improving access to finance and enhancing innovation. The policy recommendations which followed from these extensive conversations included devising long-term, tenable solutions like investing in technology to advance the creation of innovative products, encouraging governments to provide environments conducive to successful private sector growth, and providing education and sensitisation regarding how and when to farm to increase the adoption rate of appropriate technologies.

Finally, it was agreed that governments should support the accessibility of technology platforms to ensure farmers can participate in digital campaigns, especially as only a low percentage of farmers own smart phones, placing them at a technological deficit. Other policy recommendations included enabling an integrated system to make the existing financial platforms more powerful, increasing investment in technology to build innovative products for developmental impact, providing ecosystems of support thereby protecting private sector operation, and making data-sharing available to reduce unnecessary and expensive information-gathering with an aim to solve national issues more efficiently. 

Many of these recommendations foregrounded the need for the implementation of risk mitigation tools and capacity building to promote the financial success of farmers. When it came to the obstacles limiting investments in African agri-SMEs, risk was generally agreed to be the major factor, with banks and development finance institutions (DFIs) needing to be accountable to shareholders.

In general, risk was a recurrent theme at the conference, with blended finance and other integrated solutions necessary to de-risk. Overall, the policy recommendations which followed from all five of the breakout rooms tended to centre on similar priorities: making technology and data accessible to farmers on the continent, reducing some of the barriers to funding and upscaling farming on the continent, mitigating disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and enhancing private sector participation in African agricultural trade.

The perspectives and priorities shared by private sector actors will inform the ministerial discussions at the 32nd Session of the FAO Regional Conference for Africa, scheduled to be held on 11-14 April 2022 in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, both online and in person.

With the renewed corporate Strategy for Private Sector Engagement 2021–2025, FAO seeks to proactively engage with the private sector to bring about transformative change and innovation in realising inclusive, resilient and sustainable agrifood systems as well as to maximise the positive impact towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).