It would be ingenious for Africa to establish a food safety agency that will ensure efficient multi-sectoral coordination of food safety systems on the continent. Food safety holds an important place in Africa’s quest to become food-secure, healthier and prosperous in the face of climate change. Accordingly, the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD) is strongly committed to improving food safety standards and policies on the continent.

In an exclusive interview with the DrumBeat team, AUDA-NEPAD’s food safety expert, Modupe Adeyemo, shares invaluable insights on why and how the continent should prioritize food safety to meet its flagship socio-economic development goals.

Though she is confident that the continent is making tremendous strides towards a more enhanced food safety ecosystem, Adeyemo is alive to the hurdles which riddle the path, one of them being a lack of awareness.

 “It is important to start with trying to let the public appreciate the need for prioritization of food safety because it is a complex developmental issue. I say that because it cuts across other areas that are very critical; public health, nutrition, agriculture, trade, tourism and some other sectors within the economy,” she says.

 “Then beyond that, there is the need for member states to domesticate the policies and strategies that have been developed by the African Union to enable harmonization and the benefits thereof” she says.

In the 24 years that she has worked in food, medicines, and biosafety regulation, first for government (National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control of Nigeria where she rose to the rank of Assistant Director), then at AUDA-NEPAD where she is a Program Officer in charge of food safety, Adeyemo has a wealth of experience with which she continues to support national, subregional and continental initiatives.

Africa, she says, is weighed down by a huge burden of foodborne diseases. Reducing this burden is every player’s key goal.

“In so doing, we can protect the health of the population, we can reduce the health care costs, and then improve productivity because the wellness of the public will also enhance productivity in the workforce.”

Adeyemo says Africa has made “significant” progress in improving food safety. Several countries have strengthened their regulatory frameworks while others have improved surveillance and response systems for foodborne diseases.

Nevertheless, food safety management systems are fragmented in most of the countries because food safety cuts across various sectors, and involves many authorities. Adeyemo notes that this complexity has hampered coordination.

There is also inadequate investment or few dedicated project lines in countries to address the issues around food safety or even to invest in the infrastructure needed to support food safety. “The attention is usually directed to other areas. The tendency is for budgets to be more aligned to health, or directly to agriculture, or to industrialization, as prioritized areas of intervention.  The challenges around food safety are therefore not addressed because of the limited resources. Invariably, because food safety has direct implication on the relatively well-funded areas, expected positive outcomes are undermined by the menace of food safety issues. In other words, even well-funded initiatives can fail to achieve their goals if food safety problems are not adequately addressed.” she explains.  

AUDA-NEPAD has made notable achievements in improving food safety standards across the continent, working closely with other AU bodies as well as other stakeholders. One of the vehicles that have been used to achieve this is the AUDA-NEPAD’s flagship programme for biosafety, the African Biosafety Network of Experts (ABNE).

ABNE supports country-led revision of biosafety bills and implementing regulations to remove constraints for functionality and facilitate policy dialogue through participation of African regulators and decision makers at national, regional and international meetings.

Through the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program (CAADP), AU member states showcase their progress, especially on the Malabo Declaration on the agricultural transformation, which has important targets to be achieved by 2025. Improving food safety is one of those targets.

“The CAADP has a biennial review process. Worryingly, our evaluation shows that many of AU member states are lagging behind in establishing food safety systems,” Adeyemo notes.

It bothers Adeyemo that only a few countries are on course to meet food safety targets by the year 2025 as agreed in the Malabo Declaration. “The 2021 report showed that only six of the fifty-one reporting countries are on track towards achieving the set 50 per cent progress in strengthening food safety; so we are not there yet,” she reveals.

To improve this statistic, there needs to be an urgent increase in efforts and resources. In the meantime, specific policy agendas, such as the African Union Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Policy Framework for Africa and the Food Safety Strategy for Africa have been put in place by the African Union.

Among others, these agendas aim to improve the coordination among the different drivers and actors in food safety systems.

AUDA-NEPAD has also been involved in development and implementation of the African Food Safety Index. “This is the index that will report progress on the food safety performance of the AU member states. AUDA-NEPAD has thus made efforts to harmonize food safety policies and guidelines. And through these efforts, we have been able to facilitate trade and to improve food safety,” says Adeyemo.

She says that going forward, Africa needs to invest towards improving the capacity for generating its own quality data for foodborne diseases instead of relying on data from elsewhere. The continent also needs to increase investment in food safety infrastructure and reporting mechanisms for prompt response to food safety incidents such as illnesses as a result of consumption of food.

The continent should also embrace regional cooperation to leverage resources and expertise, especially from the private sector. “Importantly, we need to integrate food safety into broader development agendas,” she says. “The Malabo Declaration is going to be closed by 2025. I think for Africa, it’s important to really start reflecting on the post-Malabo policy choices. The policy choices going forward and beyond 2025 will be critical to achieving the sustainable food systems transformation on the continent with specific focus on safety.”