Rising food and fuel costs increase urgency for Africa’s bioeconomy transition

Just as large parts of the world were starting to glimpse the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine set off further shockwaves across the globe, including the largest price increase in food commodities in almost 15 years and the biggest two- year increase in energy prices in nearly five decades. To aggravate the situation, fertilizer prices have multiplied nearly three times in a year.

While the reverberations of these events are felt worldwide, they are set to disproportionately hurt the vulnerable. The Ukraine conflict and COVID-19 have slowed down two decades of economic recovery for Africa. Its agricultural sector is also particularly at risk: threatening recent steady gains in agricultural productivity and a rapidly growing processing sector for staple foods. These twin crises are exacerbating the need to redouble efforts to sustain and deepen Africa’s economic recovery, especially by fostering growth and resilience of the continent’s food systems.

Harnessing the potential and the opportunities of a viable bioeconomy would allow African countries to expand and diversify their food supply, add value to their production, and create well-paying jobs. A recent report published by the Malabo Montpellier Panel, explores how a vibrant bioeconomy can accelerate Africa’s achievement of its development goals.

Broadly speaking, a bioeconomy refers to the production and use of biological resources, as well as how science can help propel innovation toward more sustainable and value-added uses.

In the face of challenges like climate change and population growth, biosolutions have already been gaining traction. The bioeconomy is figuratively, and sometimes literally, the fertile soil for sustainable growth in Africa — including food and nutrition, human and planetary health, as well as the economy as a whole.

Applications within food and agriculture are widespread, ranging from scaling cultivation of underutilized crops to enhancing nutrition through biofortification, or — as in Ghana — targeting investments into market linkages for biomass production. The latter, involving a national program of partnerships between agribusinesses and farmer-based organizations, helped increase farmers’ agricultural productivity by more than 70 percent. For a continent already combating pests, land degradation and malnutrition, bio-based solutions represent a valuable key to unlocking further food systems resilience.

Another notable area of ​​bioeconomic focus is the nexus cutting across environmental and human health. As climate change is predicted to destabilize agricultural markets all over the African continent, it is crucial for its smallholder farmers to learn to adapt. Nature-based solutions can benefit the planet as well as human health, as is demonstrated by the case of bananas — one of the most produced and consumed fruits in the world. While providing nutrients to millions, bananas are also estimated to generate 114 metric tons of biomass each year. By using this biowaste, it is possible to create a range of products such as biodegradable packaging to protect soft fruits during transport, eliminating the need for plastics made from fossil fuels.

Even more broadly, a robust economic case can be made for widely scaling biosolutions. Through being anchored in nature, biomass products and processes constitute a compelling solution for not only stronger, but also greener, regional economies. Despite how interconnected the world already is, recent shocks have illuminated the need for livelihoods and incomes that can withstand the turbulence — and failures — of global supply chains.

By incorporating areas such as biopharmaceuticals, biochemicals, and agriculture, bioeconomies hold the potential to generate diverse, lucrative livelihoods across the continent. In South Africa alone, it is estimated that the bioeconomy made up eight percent of the country’s total Gross Domestic Product between 2007 and 2020 – a contribution that produced as many as 16 million jobs.

Africa stands before an incredible opportunity. By making use of the momentum of current crises, it can create pathways towards vibrant bioeconomies, with early leadership being shown by countries such as Ghana, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda.

But to do this effectively, governments must take deliberate steps in the right direction. African countries can start by identifying certain “gateway” sectors for their bioeconomy development. These industries can help galvanize action aligning with broader national development goals, which can then expand links to research institutions and markets alike.

In doing this, it is also imperative to raise the demand for bioproducts, as well as to create an enabling policy environment, including the setting up of independent national advisory boards.

Rising food and fuel costs present a major challenge, but Africa can take this as an opportunity to accelerate its move towards a bioeconomy and establish itself as a trailblazer in sustainable growth.

Ousmane Badiane, Ph.D. is the executive chairperson of Africa-based non-profit research organization AKADEMIYA2063. He is also co-chair of Malabo Montpellier Panel, a group of international agriculture experts who guide policy choices that accelerate progress toward food and nutritional security in Africa.

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