What do we know about the future of agri-food systems in Eastern and Southern Africa?

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By Kindie Tesfaye, Faaiqa Hartley, Timothy S. Thomas, Sika Gbegbelegbe, and Sherwin Gabriel

Food, land, and water systems face daunting challenges in the future, and the body of research exploring these challenges is growing rapidly. This note is part of a series developed by the CGIAR Foresight Initiative to summarize what we know today about the future of various aspects of food systems. The goal of these notes is to serve as a quick reference, point to further information, and help guide future research and decisions.

Key messages

  • Food demand in Eastern and Southern Africa (ESA) is expected to be 3 to 9 times higher by 2050 (relative to 2010) depending on the emerging economic and demographic trends.
  • To meet demand, agri-food systems (AFS) in the region must expand and diversify. Consumption demand for meats and fruits and vegetables will more than double by 2050. These shifts create economic opportunities but also inclusivity challenges.
  • Transformations in the AFS must increase the sector’s resilience to supply-side shocks which threaten food security and nutrition. By 2050, climate change could increase the number of people at risk of hunger by between 13.3 and 30.5 million.
  • Favorable policies and investments that are country specific, inclusive, and sustainable will be powerful tools to shape and influence the AFS transition in the region.

Recent trends and challenges

Eastern and Southern Africa is home to over 656 million people and has one of the most vulnerable food systems globally. Elevated levels of poverty and socio-economic disparities prevent most of the population from accessing adequate, safe, and nutritious food every day. The agri-food systems in ESA are shaped by the megatrends below [1].

  • Climate change: Analysis shows rising temperatures, highly variable rainfall, and more frequent extreme weather events across the region with negative impacts on agriculture production, food insecurity and malnutrition [1], [2], [3], [4]. The region has been identified as a global hotspot for high human vulnerability, malnutrition, and micro-nutrient deficiencies [3].
  • Population growth and land scarcity: ESA’s population is projected to more than double by 2050 (from 2010), with faster growth in urban areas [5]. Coupled with land scarcity, higher food demand has led to smallholder farm size declines, more continuous field cultivation, and changes in land allocations, increasing existing challenges to broad-based, inclusive AFS development [1].
  • Urbanization, economic growth, and inequality: Rapid urbanization, concentrated in smaller cities and towns, and economic growth have led to rising per capita incomes and a growing middle class [6], [7], [8]. Food preferences are thus shifting toward purchased, processed, perishable, and high-value products [1]. While this presents an opportunity for growth, current AFS have failed to meet demand. Dietary changes with disparities in healthy food access driven by income inequality will have implications for disease epidemiology if not managed.
  • Supply-side disruptions: Food system shocks due to extreme weather, pest and disease outbreaks, political and market instability, and conflict are increasing in frequency and severity, raising the risk of chronic and acute food insecurity [1]. Climate, pest outbreaks and armed conflict have negatively affected food supply, while global value chain disruptions have increased food prices. Since 2019, nearly 50 million additional people in Africa, most in the ESA, have become food insecure. Food insecurity for women has been exacerbated.
  • Rapid innovation in digital agriculture: More than 390 distinct digital agriculture solutions have been developed in Africa [9], including ESA. The digital solutions are in five major use cases: advisory services, market linkages, financial access, supply chain management, and macro agricultural intelligence [8]. The rapid adoption of mobile phones and internet connectivity has accelerated the deployment of agricultural services [10]. Continued technology use can raise AFS resilience through better coordination and increased use of big data to predict and mitigate against shocks [1].

What is the latest foresight research on this topic?

We identify four key research papers on AFS transformation foresight in the ESA region. The first focuses on two key trends, namely global food prices and urban income growth [11]. The authors consider four plausible futures for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), which include a mixture of high/low global food price environments and broad/narrow increases in income growth. The second paper also identifies household income growth as a key determinant of ESA AFS transformation [6]. In this study, changes in rural and urban diets (by tercile) are projected to 2040 under differing household income growth assumptions across terciles and settlement types (urban/rural). Changes are projected for 23 food groups and allocated to broader food consumption groups such as own production versus market; unprocessed versus processed; informal versus formal processed; and low versus high value-added processed foods. The third paper uses estimates of consumer expenditure growth to project changes in food and non-food expenditure to 2040 in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique, Malawi, and Zambia [12]. These demands are then used to estimate AFS and non-AFS employment. The fourth and most recent paper uses the IFPRI IMPACT model to project food demand and supply globally, including SSA as one of the regions modelled [13], and considers the potential impact of climate change. Findings from [14] and [15] are also included as the most recent work on climate change and crop production in the ESA and Southern African (SA) regions. These papers consider changes in temperature, precipitation, and weather variability under different global climates and potential futures.

What do those studies show?

Studies [6] and [11] show that while an increase in demand for market and processed foods is expected, the rate of change is very much determined by the pace and breadth of household income growth. By 2040, food demand is estimated to increase between 3 (pessimistic economic development) and 9 (optimistic) times the 2010 level [6]. For SSA, [13] estimates a near tripling of food consumption by 2050. More equitable income growth (optimistic) results in larger increases in food demand but also faster shifts toward processed foods, primarily formal processed foods [6, 11]. For food groups, the largest share declines are in maize and own production toward “food away from home”, beef, fruit, and high value processed items [6]. Demand shares of root crops and plantain decrease, while wheat and products, beverages, and eggs increase. [13] find similar trends in SSA with a shift to meats, fruits and vegetables, and sugar.

Changes in dietary patterns are important for the development of agri-processing systems and market development. The modern food sector’s estimated market share by 2040 rises to nearly 50% [6]. The expansion of this sector is likely to lead to increased food safety, and lower and more stable prices, but will also squeeze out smallholder farmers and small stores. Women will be disproportionally affected by market changes as they constitute most retailers in the traditional food market sector. Some women, however, will gain from the rise in food demand as the sector will remain a key provider of food. Unequal increases in incomes, however, are likely to result in higher food import shares as the scale of demand may be insufficient to attract the necessary investment for local industry development [11]. As illustrated in Figure 1, the projected import share of food consumed is expected to increase in SSA [13].

Figure 1: Change in consumption and net trade by select commodity in ESA, 2010-2050

Source: Based on data from Thomas and Robinson, 2019

Changing dietary patterns also hold opportunities for employment and increased equality. Dietary changes could increase the employment share of non-farm AFS in ESA to between 9.7% (low growth) and 11.3% (high) in 2025 (7.9% in 2010) [12] with employment levels in food manufacturing, food preparation, and marketing and transport more than doubling. Employment effects, however, depend significantly on the capital intensity of non-AFS sectors. More capital-intensive sectors create fewer jobs, thereby limiting employment opportunities outside of agriculture, and increasing income inequality. Higher levels of income inequality as indicated above negatively affect the expansion of the non-farm AFS.

While the share of maize in total consumption is likely to decline, the crop will remain a crucial source of calories and nutrients [11], [14]. Climate change however places production of the crop (among others) at risk as temperature and precipitation changes reduce yields without any benefit from CO2 fertilization [15]. Relative to other regions, agriculture in ESA is particularly disadvantaged under climate change as large areas of land are used for crops that do not benefit from CO2 fertilization [15]. Maize yields in Southern Africa could decrease by as much as 16% by 2060, relative to 2020, in a bad year (1-in-20-year event; high global emissions scenario). The frequency of bad years is likely to increase – a 1-in-20-year event is expected every 3.5 years with climate change [14]. Sub-regional impacts can be more severe. Food security is expected to rise under climate change with the number of people at risk of hunger increasing by between 13.3 and 30.5 million by 2050 [13].

Many of the trends experienced in the ESA are influenced and/or determined by policies and investments. Policies need to be country and context specific as transformations across the region and within countries will be heterogenous. Policy decisions that hinder investment and fail to create needed infrastructure for transport, marketing, energy, and communications will negatively affect AFS transformation. Investment in education and developing technical skills is crucial to the success of food transformation in the region.

What are key gaps, questions, and opportunities for further foresight research?

We are not aware of any recent AFS foresight studies specifically focused on the ESA region, although several studies do look at sub-regions or specific countries. Foresight research opportunities related to AFS transformation in ESA include: (i) urbanization patterns, changing market structures and the role of the traditional food sector, (ii) impacts of changing diets on nutrition, health, and inclusivity, (iii) the interaction of population growth, urbanization and smallholder farming under changing climate and global socio-economic conditions, (iv) income disparities, food prices and intra-regional and -Africa trade, and (v) impact of food system transformation on land use, carbon emissions, and resilience.

Authors of this note are Kindie Tesfaye, Senior Scientist, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Ethiopia; Faaiqa Hartley, Scientist, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Timothy S. Thomas, Senior Research Fellow, IFPRI; Sika Gbegbelegbe, Agricultural Economist and Foresight Modeler, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA); and Sherwin Gabriel, Scientist, IFPRI South Africa.

If you have any feedback or questions about this note, please get in touch with Kindie Tesfaye (k.tesfayefantaye@cgiar.org) and Faaiqa Hartley (f.hartley@cgiar.org).

For more information, check out these resources:

Frija, A., Chebil, A., Abdul Mottaleb, K., et al. 2020. Agricultural growth and sex-disaggregated employment in Africa: Future perspectives under different investment scenarios. Global Food Security, 24. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100353.

de Bruin, S., Dengerink, J. and van Vliet, J. 2021. Urbanization as driver of food system transformation and opportunities for rural livelihoods. Food Sec. 13, 781–798.  https://doi.org/10.1007/s12571-021-01182-8.

International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). International Model for Policy Analysis of Agricultural Commodities and Trade (IMPACT) Dataverse. https://dataverse.harvard.edu/dataverse/impact.

Jenane, C., Ulimwengu, J.M., and Getaw, T. (Eds). 2022. 2022 Annual trends and outlook report: Agrifood processing strategies for successful food systems transformation in Africa. ReSAKSS Annual Trends and Outlook Report. Kigali, Rwanda; and Washington, DC: AKADEMIYA2063; and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). https://doi.org/10.54067/9781737916444

Komarek, A.M, Dunston, S., Enahoro, D., et al. 2021. Income, consumer preferences, and the future of livestock-derived food demand, Global Environmental Change, Volume 70, 102343. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102343.


[1] AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa). 2022. Africa Agriculture Status Report. Accelerating African Food Systems Transformation (Issue 10). Nairobi, Kenya: Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). 

[2] Food Security Information Network (FSIN). 2022. 2022 Global report on food crises: Joint analysis for better decisions. Rome, Italy; and Washington, DC. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); World Food Programme (WFP); and International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). https://ebrary.ifpri.org/digital/collection/p15738coll2/id/136345 

[3] IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2022: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [H.-O. Pörtner, D.C. Roberts, M. Tignor, E.S. Poloczanska, K. Mintenbeck, A. Alegría, M. Craig, S. Langsdorf, S. Löschke, V. Möller, A. Okem, B. Rama (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA, 3056 pp., doi:10.1017/9781009325844. 

[4] Doi, T., Behera, S. K., & Yamagata, T. (2022). On the predictability of the extreme drought in East Africa during the short rains season. Geophysical Research Letters, 49, e2022GL100905. https://doi.org/10.1029/2022GL100905

[5] Doi, T., Behera, S. K., & Yamagata, T. (2022). On the predictability of the extreme drought in East Africa during the short rains season. Geophysical Research Letters, 49, e2022GL100905. https://doi.org/10.1029/2022GL100905

[6] Tschirley, D., Haggblade, S., Reardon, T., eds. 2014. Population Growth, Climate Change and Pressure on the Land – Eastern and Southern Africa. 99 pp. ISBN 978-0-9903005-2-6 

[7] Ogwu, M. C. 2019. Towards Sustainable Development in Africa: The Challenge of Urbanization and Climate Change Adaptation Chapter. In P. B. Cobbinah & M. Addaney (Eds.), The Geography of Climate Change Adaptation in Urban Africa (pp. 29–55). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-04873-0  

[8] Tschirley, D., Reardon, T., Ager, M.D., and Snyder, J. 2015. The rise of a middle class in East and Southern Africa: Implications for food system transformation. J. Int. Dev. 27, 628–646. doi: 10.1002/jid.3107

[9] Tsan, M., Totapally, D. S., Hailu, D. M. C., and Addom, B. K. C. (2019). The Digitalization of African Agriculture Report 2018-2019. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA). 

[10] Mabaya, E., & Porciello, J. (2022). Can digital solutions transform agrifood systems in Africa? Agrekon, 61(1), 67-79. 

[11] Jayne, T.S., Meyer, F., Traub, L.N. 2014. Africa’s Evolving Food Systems: Drivers of change and the scope for influencing them. IIED Working Paper. IIED, London. http://pubs.iied.org/14637IIED 

[12] Tschirley, D., Snyder, J., Dolislager, M., Reardon, T., Haggblade, S., Goeb, J., Traub, L., Ejobi, F., and Meyer, F. 2015. Africa’s unfolding diet transformation: implications for agrifood system employment. Journal of Agribusiness in Developing and Emerging Economies. 5. 102-136. 10.1108/JADEE-01-2015-0003. 

[13] Thomas, T. and Robinson, S. 2019., Changes in Food Supply and Demand by 2050 in Yadav, S.S., Redden, R.J., Hatfield, J.L., Ebert, A.W. and Hunter, D. (eds) Food Security and Climate Change. United States: JohnWiley & Sons Ltd., pp. 25-50.

[14] Thomas, T., Robertson, R.D., Strzepek, K. and Arndt, C. 2022. Extreme Events and Production Shocks for Key Crops in Southern Africa Under Climate Change. Front. Clim., 24 May 2022, Sec. Predictions and Projections. https://doi.org/10.3389/fclim.2022.78758. 

[15] Thomas, T. and Robertson, R.D. Forthcoming. Preliminary Special Report on Climate Change in Eastern and Southern Africa.


Photo: Market in Kitgum, Gulu district, Northern Uganda. Credit: ©2017CIAT/GeorginaSmith

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