The World Bank has called on African countries to remove border restrictions on the food trade within the region to enable the continent to feed itself.
In its new report published on Thursday, the World Bank said Africa's farmers can potentially grow enough food to feed the continent and avert future food crises if countries unblock regional food trade within the region.
The bank's vice president for Africa Makhtar Diop said the continent has the ability to grow and deliver good quality food to put on the dinner tables of the continent's families.
"However, this potential is not being realized because farmers face more trade barriers in getting their food to market than anywhere else in the world. Too often borders get in the way of getting food to homes and communities which are struggling with too little to eat," Diop said.
The report notes a competitive food market will help poor people most. For example, the report says poor people in the slums of Nairobi pay more for their maize, rice, and other staple food than wealthy people pay for the same products in local supermarkets.
The report underlines the importance of food distribution networks which in many countries fail to benefit poor farmers and poor consumers.
The report comes as African scientists on Wednesday called on African countries to address climate and land tenure systems to avert the continent's food security challenges.
Dr. Braimoh Ademola, the Senior Natural Resources Management Specialist, Agriculture and Rural Development Department (ARD) at the World Bank said the prospect of Africa rising from its bleak food security reality may never come to pass if two key problems are not addressed.
"We are taking a look at how farmers can be assured that if they plant crops this year, the next year they are not driven away from the same plot of land," Ademola said on the sidelines of the 2012 Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) Conference underway in Nairobi.
He cited Africa's need to increase productivity for about 750 million people in Africa by 2050 as the continent's greatest challenge what with the lacking resilience in the agricultural sector to cope with the reality of climate change whose impact is likely to decrease crop yields to as low as 20-30 percent.
According to the bank, the continent would also generate an extra 20 billion U.S. dollars in yearly earnings if African leaders can agree to dismantle trade barriers that blunt more regional dynamism.
The report, Africa Can Help Feed Africa: Removing barriers to regional trade in food staples, urges African leaders to improve trade so that food can move more freely between countries and from fertile areas to those where communities are suffering food shortages.
The bank expects demand for food in Africa to double by the year 2020 as people increasingly leave the countryside and move to the continent's cities.
The report comes as many as 19 million people are living with the threat of hunger and malnutrition in West Africa's Sahel region.
With many African farmers effectively cut off from the high- yield seeds, and the affordable fertilizers and pesticides needed to expand their crop production, the continent has turned to foreign imports to meet its growing needs in staple foods.
The new report suggests that if the continent's leaders can embrace more dynamic inter-regional trade, Africa's farmers, the majority of whom are women, could potentially meet the continent's rising demand and benefit from a major growth opportunity.
It would also create more jobs in services such as distribution, while reducing poverty and cutting back on expensive food imports. Africa's production of staple foods is worth at least 50 billion dollars a year.
According to the new report, rapid urbanization will challenge the ability of farmers to ship their cereals and other foods to consumers when the nearest trade market is just across a national border.
"Countries south of the Sahara, for example, could significantly boost their food trade over the next several years to manage the deadly impact of worsening drought, rising food prices, rapid population growth, and volatile weather patterns," it says.
The report notes that only five percent of all cereals imported by African countries come from other African countries while huge tracts of fertile land, around 400 million hectares, remain uncultivated and yields remain a fraction of those obtained by farmers elsewhere in the world.
Transport cartels are still common across Africa, and the incentives to invest in modern trucks and logistics are weak.
The bank's lead economist for Africa and principal author of the report Paul Brenton said key challenge for the continent is how to create a competitive environment in which governments embrace credible and stable policies that encourage private investors and businesses to boost food production across the region.
He said the move that farmers get the capital, the seeds, and the machinery they need to become more efficient, and families get enough good food at the right price.
The report suggests that countries in West Africa in particular could halve their transport costs within 10 years if they adopted policy reforms that spurred more competition within the region.
Other obstacles to greater African trade in food staples include export and import bans, variable import tariffs and quotas, restrictive rules of origin, and price controls.
Often devised with little public scrutiny, these policies are then poorly communicated to traders and officials.
This process in turn promotes confusion at border crossings, limits greater regional trade, creates uncertain market conditions, and contributes to food price volatility.