The U.S. Approach to African Food Security Needs a New Look

Image Source: US State Department

Food insecurity in Africa – and around the globe – has long been recognized as a key, upstream contributor to manifold crises: from political instability, to unrest, to violent extremism, to mass migration. The relationship is also cyclical; war and political instability tend to worsen food insecurity. When it comes to U.S. policy options for addressing these correlated threats, the toolkit has generally been limited to sending food, cash, drones, troops, or some combination of these. During the Global War on Terrorism, it was exceedingly difficult for policymakers to afford any resources or institutional attention to the upstream causes of their present-day threats. After all, downstream, band-aid solutions are understandable, given how government budgeting preferences the priorities of the “now” over those of tomorrow. But to procrastinate on thinking seriously about upstream threat multipliers in Africa – like food insecurity— is to relegate future budgets and policymakers to the same purgatory of pursuing limited aims with limited means.

How can the United States’ Africa strategy go bold on food security without evading the demands of the present? Israel, the UAE, and the Abraham Accords provide a clue.

The Abrahamic model – AgTech and diplomacy

Much can be learned from the links between innovation, food security, and diplomatic access in the Abraham Accords. Israel, for its part, has long shown itself to be a global leader in agricultural innovation – from creating an entire forest in the desert in the 1960’s to now boasting over 300 recent desert tech startups – mostly in the Negev desert – in which a cumulative $347 million have been invested as of 2022. Importantly, Israeli entrepreneurship and innovation in this sector have helped them break new ground in recent years in their relations with several Arab neighbors. Through the Abraham Accords, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco showed they would rather cooperate on shared threats – like sustaining growing populations in increasingly arid climes – than solve them on their own. In other words, the trajectory of Israeli startups and their track record in agricultural technology (AgTech) have become huge diplomatic assets. Sudan, another desert country likely to get only more arid with climate change, joined the Accords in 2021. Israeli ingenuity in solving issues critical to African (and Middle Eastern) food security is a lynchpin of their strategic success and regional identity.

Similarly, the Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has made AgTech a priority not only for their own domestic development, but for their regional position as a business partner of choice for many. The ADIO, according to their director, Dr. Tariq bin Hendi, committed $100 million in R&D and production contracts in 2020 to four companies leading the charge on next-generation irrigation technologies: AeroFarmsMadar FarmsRDI, and RNZ, with plans to export their success stories to “every arid climate.”

In the United States, however, investment in public R&D in AgTech has steadily fallen for over two decades – constituting a major missed opportunity to contribute to an industry so many Africans care about – with broad strategic, humanitarian, and economic implications, as our Middle Eastern allies have shown us. Accordingly, U.S. investment in this industry should reflect its significance as a diplomatic tool and should consider the following approach. 

New-look approach

In the United States, several federal agencies are working on food security in Africa; the problem is that their contributions are either too downstream or too piecemeal to reshape the long-term outlook. USAID’s Feeding the Future initiative has done great work in relieving famines and fertilizer supply chain issues, but focuses more on the mitigation rather than upstream prevention of crises. The International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) does important work in conjunction with USAID through this same initiative. It also provides loans to subsistence farmers in Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania through its One Acre Fund. But while the DFC, USAID, and DoS make piecemeal progress, our allies in Israel and the UAE demonstrate the potential of bold investment strategies.

To maximize its impact, the DFC should reorient its priorities away from loans to smallholder farms and toward direct equity investments in the early development technologies that have already proven potential. With finite funds, the DFC’s impact will be limited by spreading its resources over too many downstream development problem sets. The DFC’s Office of Direct Equity should take a cue from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office and look to the companies already off the ground in Israel and the UAE, since these startups have the best chance to develop and scale world-changing solutions. After all, DFC’s own evaluation criteria for eligible projects stipulate a company must show “real revenue and demonstrated product to market fit.” Doubling down on promising startups like the Israeli WaterGen, which extracts drinkable water from the air, or the Emirati funded Responsive Drip Irrigation, may be the safest and fastest way for U.S. aid agencies and federal investment dollars to make an impact in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa and other arid climes.

At the same time, the U.S. Small Business Administration should give more attention to both R&D and production contracts for American desert agriculture startups. The American southwest is well positioned to contribute startups to this effort with abundant talent pools at institutions like UC Davis’ Digital Agriculture Laboratory and the University of Arizona’s Yuma Center for Excellence in Desert Agriculture. Boldness in the agricultural innovations of tomorrow may seem tangential to America’s regional strategy in Africa and pull resources from more pressing needs, but if the Middle East is any indicator, it may well be critical to opening doors (and keeping them open) in the region.

Making desert agriculture technology and investment a lynchpin of our grand strategy on the continent could produce several second and third order strategic benefits:

  1. A more politically resilient Africa: Better fed populations will likely be better positioned to sustain and build on moments of political progress
  2. Migration: Enhanced food security is one less reason to flee one’s country
  3. Renewed ties with African partners: such an initiative could rehabilitate the U.S. as the partner of choice for countries that have drifted to China.

After all, the Biden Administration’s U.S. Strategy Towards Sub-Saharan Africa professes a willingness to center African interests and African agency in contrast to the transactional approaches of other great powers. The African Union’s Agenda 2063, for its part, lists agricultural innovation as a critical component in their vision for a sustainable Africa. Ushering American public and private capital into this sector with greater urgency, therefore, puts our money where our mouth is and will be well worth the investment.

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