Virtual Jobs: African Smallholder Farmers and food imports

Report Published: May 2020

Every tonne of food imported into Africa could have been grown there. This would provide jobs, save money and increase food security: making countries more resilient.

Rethinking food imports could positively impact the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers. Every billion dollars spent on importing food is equivalent to hundreds of thousands of “Virtual Jobs”. These are jobs which are lost, or never created, in favour of outsourced food.

What would it take to substitute imports with African-produced food? What is needed to increase crop yields, improve climate resilience and create sustainable livelihoods?
The answer lies in green water management and high water-use efficiency: supporting smallholder farmers to increase productivity and enter the agricultural value chain. Productivity is limited by water availability issues, particularly the variation in rainfall and high-water losses. The best way to build viable rural economies is through increased attention and investment into enhanced rainfed agricultural practices - ensuring that Africa is more resilient in the face of a changing climate.

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Millions of rainfed small farms are scattered throughout the sub-continent, and the majority of the African population depend on them. Africa’s smallholder farmers do not exist in a vacuum.

Kevin Urama, African Development Bank

Poverty and its progressive degrading impacts on the catchment and watercourses throughout the basin is the largest single threat to the people the basin and to future development.

2019 Strategic Plan for the Zambezi Watercourse, Zambezi Watercourse Commission

Lessons Learned

· Each USD 1 billion dollars spent on food imports is equivalent to the annual income of 334,000 farming households representing 670,000 on- farm jobs and 200,000 off-farm jobs. The addition of the dependants of these households means that each billion dollars of food imports directly impact the livelihoods of 2.17 million people. 

· As a result of those subsidies, food produced in SSA has to compete with imported food on the local market and public funds / precious wasted financial resources to import food. There is an opportunity cost: funds could be spent on growing the rural economy.

· Water availability issues, particularly the variation in rainfall and high-water losses, limit productivity. With the growing reality of climate change, rainwater and soil-moisture management is critical.

· Investment in enhanced rainfed agriculture can bring much needed food security plus climate resilience for smallholder farmers whilst regenerating rural economies. Investing in green water management is the best way to support the building of viable rural economies and ensure that Africa is more resilient in the face of a changing climate.