The World Bank is urging African countries to strengthen regional food trade, suggesting that food security could be greatly enhanced simply by allowing farmers to trade more easily across the continent.

Currently, despite massive food insecurity, just five percent of Africa’s imported cereals come from other African countries. Depending instead on far-flung imports from countries in Europe or Southeast Asia, or on emergency food provisions from international donors, results in both increased prices and trade imbalances, impacting particularly on the poorest.

With international prices for staple foods again at near-record highs following a drought in the United States this summer and amidst continued international demand for biofuels, many African countries have been forced to step up the levels of imported foods.

Yet concretising and harmonising food trade regulations across African blocs, the Washington-based World Bank suggests, could boost smallholder incomes and lead farmers both to increase the cultivation of available arable land and significantly boost yields.

“Africa has the ability to grow and deliver good-quality food to put on the dinner tables of the continent’s families,” Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice-president for Africa, said on Wednesday. “However, this potential is not being realised because farmers face more trade barriers in getting their food to market than anywhere else in the world.”

In the foreword to a new report, Diop notes that just a tenth of arable land in broad swathes of Africa is currently under cultivation. Increasing that figure, he suggests, could do much not only to deal with rising and critical need within the continent but even allow for sales to the rest of the world, as well.

Yet structural issues remain significant impediments to realising that goal. While the bank particularly highlights the opportunity in easing the sale of agricultural products across borders, related problems include sharing agricultural knowledge between countries on the continent as well as accessing potentially helpful technologies.

“Farmers in Africa face more barriers in accessing the inputs they need and in getting their food to consumers in African cities than do suppliers from the rest of the world,” Diop writes. “If African farmers were to achieve the yields that farmers are attaining in other developing countries, then output of staples would easily double or even triple.”

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