Originally Published 2016-07-08 12:04:33 Published on Jul 08, 2016
India-Africa must join hands to fight food insecurity

Food security continues to be high on the list of development priorities for India and Africa because together, they are home to the largest number of undernourished people in the world. Despite high economic growth rates, India and Africa continue to suffer hunger and under-nutrition on a massive scale. In India, the incidence of undernourishment had dropped only marginally during the period of high growth from 210.1 million in 1990 to 194.6 million in 2014.

According to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16, the proportion of children under five years who are underweight is significantly high in states such as Bihar (43.9%), Madhya Pradesh (42.8%), Andhra Pradesh (31.9%), and Maharashtra (36%). The picture is quite similar in Africa. Although most of the countries in Africa experienced high growth rates from 2000 onwards, poverty and under-nutrition persist. In fact, Africa is the only continent where the absolute number of undernourished people increased. Although western Africa was able to lift a number of people out of hunger, there was a 20% increase in hungry people in East Africa due to due to adverse climatic and drought conditions.

The period of high growth was also marked by stagnation in agriculture, a sector which employs the bulk of the population in both India and Africa. India's agricultural GDP growth from 1990-91 to 2013-14 was only 3% and many parts of India are currently reeling under severe agrarian crises. Similarly, the contribution of agriculture in Africa's growth story has been minimal. African agriculture also suffers from a number of problems such as low productivity, fragmented production systems, and limited use of modern technology.

The average farmer in sub-Saharan Africa produces only 1433 kg of cereals per hectare. Cereal yields in Botswana, Namibia, and Niger are among the lowest in the world at 299.8, 315, and 424.4 kg per hectare, respectively. Although India produces large quantities of cereals, particularly wheat and rice, and yield rates in India are more than double that of sub-Saharan Africa, India's yield rates are also drastically lower than those of developed regions such as North America (6671 kg per ha), East Asia and Pacific (5184 kg per ha), and Euro area (5855.4 kg per ha).

Given their common challenges of hunger, under-nutrition, and low agricultural productivity, there is a very strong case for cooperation between India and Africa. India's green revolution experience and its significant advances in agro-tech which transformed it from a food-deficient to a food self-sufficient country — can aid Africa. Also, technologies developed in India are more appropriate for Africa as opposed to those developed in the West because of similar agro-ecological conditions and small-holder based farming systems in India and Africa. Greater cooperation between India and Africa in the area of food security is in line with India's commitment to South-South cooperation. Many African leaders like Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete and Lene Sebgo have also expressed their admiration for India's development experience and are keen to draw lessons from India.

In fact, the last decade has witnessed a significant increase in cooperation between India and Africa in the area of food security. Food security was a key theme in all three India-Africa Forum Summits. Trade in food articles between India and Africa has also posted rapid growth since 2000. India’s food imports from Africa increased from USD 138.6 million in 2001 to USD 2090 million in 2015. India's food exports to Africa grew even more, particularly of rice, with a five-fold increase from USD 802.9 million to USD 4,369.5 million in the brief period of 2009 to 2013.

India's huge exports of low-priced non-basmati rice have stabilised international prices, in turn, helping poor African consumers. On the other hand, several African countries such as Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, and Kenya have emerged as important sources of pulses, a commodity in which India is chronically deficient. Currently, food articles account for over 85% of the total agricultural trade between India and Africa.

India is also making an important contribution to agricultural research and capacity building in Africa by setting up institutions such as India-Africa Institute of Agriculture and Rural Development, India-Africa Centre for Medium-Range Weather Prediction in East Africa, India-Africa University for Life and Earth Sciences, and India-Africa Food Processing Cluster. Two institutions, the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics and International Livestock Research Institute lead India-Africa cooperation in biotechnology. To support human resource development in Africa, India has implemented a number of scholarships for African students in India. So far, 195 African students have enrolled in educational programmes in India. India has also extended credit lines worth USD 1106.2 million towards agricultural development and food security.

The role of India’s private sector has also grown rapidly. Indian industry associations such as FICCI are also playing an important role in bringing together sector experts and business leaders from India and Africa. Most African countries have encouraged the growth of Indian private sector through business-friendly policies. For instance, Burkina Faso allows 100% foreign investment with the easy repatriation of profits, and new companies benefit from a tax holiday for the first few years. Indian companies like KBL are playing a particularly important role in Africa's irrigation sector.

The use of KBL water pumps in Senegal, for example, has led to an increase in total area under cultivation and Senegal can now meet about 40% of its rice demand locally, as compared to 19% earlier. Indian water pumps have been successful in Africa because the cost of Indian pumps is much lower than European ones. Jain Irrigation is sharing drip irrigation technologies in several countries of Africa. India is also emerging as a major supplier of agricultural machinery, particularly tractors to many African countries. Indian companies such as Sonalika International and Mahindra and Mahindra have also set up tractor plants in African countries.

The scope of Indian seed companies in Africa bears a special mention. Like Indian pharmaceutical companies, Indian seed companies also have the potential to play an important role in addressing Africa's food insecurity by providing improved seeds at affordable prices. Apart from the oft repeated 'agro equivalence argument', Indian seed companies are experienced in dealing with small-scale farmers and complex rural marketing systems as compared to the US and European companies. Many Indian seed firms have entered the African market and some Indian crop varieties, particularly sorghum and millets, have been found to perform well in Africa. However, the share of India in Africa’s seed market is only 1.46%. Indian companies face many regulatory and policy barriers in Africa. To overcome these barriers, there is a need for better collaboration between Indian and African governments.

We find that India’s initiatives have mainly focussed on addressing supply-side challenges in Africa via adoption of better inputs and technology. But, African policy makers must reflect on the adverse environmental and social effects of India’s green revolution. Moreover, given the vulnerability of Indian and African food production to climate change; building adaptive capacity and developing climate smart agricultural practices should be a key component of India-Africa partnership for food security. African countries must recognise that food-security is a multi-dimensional concept which includes three components - the availability, consumption, and absorption of food.

Notwithstanding the deficiencies of India’s public distribution system, there are some lessons for Africa. For instance, some states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh have performed better than others in providing access to food. Moreover, India's experience in implementing the mid-day meal scheme and the National Food Security Act can offer important insights to African policymakers who are working on developing national food security programmes. Indian civil society organisations and think tanks must play a more active role in sharing such success stories with their African counterparts.

Lastly, Africa’s growing food and agriculture market offers a great opportunity for Indian companies. At the same time, India's private sector can play an important role in addressing the investment and technology gap in Africa's food sector. However, specific challenges that Indian companies are facing in Africa need to be addressed through greater cooperation between Indian and African governments. Moreover, there needs to be more frequent dialogue between the government of India and business organisations so that Indian government can advance the interests of Indian companies in Africa. Lastly, negative experiences with Indian farming operations, particularly in Ethiopia, have severely dented the image of Indian private sector in Africa. Therefore, Indian companies must engage in responsible behaviour in Africa.

This commentary originally appeared in South Asia Monitor.

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Malancha Chakrabarty

Malancha Chakrabarty

Dr Malancha Chakrabarty is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director (Research) at the Observer Research Foundation where she coordinates the research centre Centre for New Economic ...

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