Mozambique food riots belie African agricultural success

Mozambique’s food riots in the capital city of Maputo reinforce the pessimistic outlook for Africa's food future, but several places on the continent are producing food surpluses.

Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters
Police stand guard as a man clears burning barricades in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, Sept. 2, 2010. Demonstrators blocked roads with burning tires and looted shops in Maputo on Thursday as deadly riots sparked by soaring bread prices entered a second day.

Successes in African agriculture are harder to recognize when wheat shortages are causing price increases – and raising the specter of food riots in African cities.

The riots in Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo this week reinforce the pessimistic scenario on Africa’s food future which Raj Patel outlines persuasively in The Guardian. The logic is devastating. Rising prices for commodities imported in large quantities by African countries will inevitably lead to social pain – and backlash. As one Mozambican official with a national farmers' organization told Mr. Patel, “These protests are going to end. But they will always come back.”

The struggle by ordinary urban Africans to procure enough food isn’t only intensified by climate change but also by widening income inequality in most African cities. But neither of these forces should obscure the successes in agriculture that have created zones within the sub-Sahara of high food production. These zones of success – from tuber and cotton farmers in West Africa to vegetable and maize growers in East Africa – are detailed in a new book, Successes in African Agriculture, from Johns Hopkins University Press. The book reprises work first published six years ago by the International Food Policy Research Institute under the inspired editorship of Steven Haggblade, a professor of international development at Michigan State University and one of the brightest minds on the planet on the subject of African farmers.

According to this important book, subregions within Africa continue to produce food surpluses, despite various well-known handicaps faced by small African farmers. These surpluses sometimes help to close the food gap in areas where imports typically account for much consumption. In his more recent papers, Haggblade has identified barriers to trading food between African nations as among the most important obstacles to both lowering food prices and raising living standards for small farmers in Africa. A greater reliance on intra-African agro-trade could do wonders for reducing the impacts on Africans of climate change and spot shortages of wheat and other important commodities today and in the years ahead. In the final chapter of “Successes in African Agriculture,” Haggblade and three co-authors outline “the way forward” for African farmers. That African farmers have been succeeding, and have significant capacity for growth and change, ought to be as important a story as food riots. Both success and failure co-evolve in Africa; emphasizing one at the expense of the other, in food security or any other modality of human existence, is neither intellectually honest nor morally persuasive.

-- G. Pascal Zachary blogs at Africa Works here.

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