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Africa’s growing food security problem: Why it can’t be fixed without proper data

guest column:Simon Roberts/ Jason Bell THE COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent lockdown measures have had a huge negative impact on producers and consumers. Food production has been disrupted, and incomes have been lost. But a far more devastating welfare consequence of the pandemic could be reduced access to food. A potential rise in food insecurity is a key policy point for many countries. The World Economic Forum has stated that this pandemic is set to “radically exacerbate food insecurity in Africa”. This, and other supplier shocks, such as locust swarms in East Africa, have made many African economies more dependent on externally sourced food. As the pandemic continues to spread, the continued functioning of regional and national food supply chains is vital to avoid a food security crisis in countries dependent on agriculture. This is true in terms of both nutrition and livelihoods. Many countries in southern and east African economies are in this situation. The integration of regional economies is one vehicle for alleviating pervasive food security issues. But regional integration can’t be achieved without the appropriate support for investment in production, infrastructure and capabilities. And, crucially, there must be more accurate and timely information about food markets. Data on food prices are crucial for political and economic stability. Yet it is not easily accessible. A study by the Centre for Competition, Regulation and Economic Development highlights how poor and inconsistent data severely affects the quality of any assessment of agricultural markets in the Southern and East African region. What’s missing There have been attempts to collate and disseminate agricultural prices internationally. National commodity exchanges have also been created in some countries to facilitate wholesale agricultural trade and the collection of market and price information in Africa. These include the Regional Agricultural Trade Intelligence Network, the Food and Agricultural Organisation’s Corporate Statistical Database and the World Food Programme’s Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping database. But the overall effectiveness of commodity exchanges has been limited in countries in southern and east Africa. With some exceptions, they have not been widely used, meaning that small producers have not had good access to reliable pricing information. The patchy data that is available at the producer level indicates very large price differentials across southern and east Africa. These differentials are far in excess of reasonable transport and related costs. They speak to the lack of integration of markets. They also point to the potential that local market power is being exploited. An example would be the power of large buyers over small producers who face high transport costs to individually transport goods to faraway markets. Having up-to-date information on food prices — along with other market information relating to production and market structures — is necessary to understand agricultural food systems in the region. Th

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The Green Book Pt I