MODERATOR: Good afternoon to everyone from the U.S. Department of State’s Africa Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across the continent and thank all of you for joining this discussion. Today, we are very pleased to be – to welcome Dr. Cary Fowler, Special Envoy for Global Food Security, and Dina Esposito, the USAID Global Food Crisis Coordinator. Special Envoy Fowler and Coordinator Esposito will discuss the U.S. strategy for addressing the global food security crisis and their ongoing visit to Malawi and Zambia. They are speaking to us from Lilongwe, Malawi.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Special Envoy Fowler and Coordinator Esposito, then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many of them as we can during the briefing.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to our two guests for their opening remarks. So, Dr. Cary Fowler.
MR FOWLER: Well, thank you. I’ll start out by saying that this is the first trip that Dina Esposito and I have made certainly together, but also in our new roles, to developing countries – to visit two Feed the Future countries. And our mission here is really fourfold, I would say. One is to gain – simply to gain a better understanding of the food security situation in these two countries, in Zambia and Malawi. Two, get some firsthand experience on – of what the U.S. Government’s role and programs are here. And third, to increase the local and even global awareness of what the U.S. Government is doing. And then fourth, perhaps foremost, to listen and to learn, to see what’s going on here, to see what’s working, perhaps what’s not working, to make adjustments along the way, and to strengthen the partnerships that we have.
MS ESPOSITO: Thanks, Cary. To that I would just add that on the ground here, we’ve had an opportunity to visit with smallholder farmers, many of them women. We’ve had a chance to meet with commercial enterprises who are working with those smallholders to grow their businesses. We’ve had a chance to meet with high-level government officials in Zambia, and are meeting with our government counterparts here.
Feed the Future is a global U.S. Government hunger initiative, and it involves USAID, the U.S. Department of State, Millennium Challenge Corporation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Development Finance Corporation, and a wide range of U.S. Government agencies. And we’re here to see the way all of those efforts come together on the ground.
I would also just note that Zambia and Malawi are really at a pivotal moment in their history. President Hichilema and President Chakwera have both taken a stand for accountable and transparent governance and against corruption, and have expressed a strong interest in advancing commercial interests. And we fundamentally see farming as a business, and we see this as a window of opportunity, a real opening that the United States can support by serving as a catalyst for change using our convening power and our other engagements with government, civil society, the private sector, to really advance global food security at a time of crisis.
We know – and Dr. Cary will describe a little bit more – what that crisis looks like, but in this pivotal moment we can actually take up some of the innovations and some of the – accelerate some of the approaches that we know work but just haven’t really stuck yet. And I think this moment of coming together, this moment of partnership to advance global food security, that the U.S. Government at the highest levels – from President Biden, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Samantha Power, our USAID administrator, Janet Yellen, Treasury Department, and so on and so forth, Secretary Vilsack – all saying now is the moment, now is the moment to come together, let’s exert our leadership together to bring what is really a solvable problem – global hunger – if we put our minds to it.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Special Envoy Fowler and Coordinator Esposito. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s briefing. To start off, I’d like to ask Dr. Fowler, what is the context of global food insecurity today? Can you share what you have seen and learned from your trip thus far in Africa and from the conversations you have had with farmers and experts from the agricultural and nutrition sectors?
MR FOWLER: Sure. Well, one thing that we learned last year is that there are multiple food systems in the world. We talk about the global food system, but in fact food systems are also local and they’re different; there’s a diversity of those. And we learned that in some ways, all of them are precarious. So what happens in the Ukraine, for example, has ripple effects throughout the world, but those ripple effects can be quite different.
Last year we spoke about the chief drivers of the global food crisis as being climate change, COVID, and conflict. We have to recognize that today, in 2023, we still have climate change, COVID, and conflict, but we also have low stockpiles of grain, we have market disruptions, we have the issues that are being caused by Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine which is of course limiting the grain exports of that country, which is one of the top five exporters.
So as much as I wish I could bring the hopeful message that the food crisis will be over this year, we have to recognize that the chief drivers of the food crisis are still with us. And it behooves us, therefore, to be looking at solutions for all of those, or adaptive measures. That’s the situation as I see it today.
Our visit in Zambia and Malawi, however, I think has – even though both of these countries have huge challenges, the situation still in some ways is hopeful. We’ve seen some amazing – we’ve met some amazing people here struggling very hard to overcome the challenges that they face, and that’s been quite invigorating to us.
MODERATOR: Okay, thank you very much. So I’d like to turn now to a question from Thamo Kapisa from SABC Channel Africa in South Africa: “What measures are being taken to ensure food security in Malawi, after heavy rains destroyed most crops this rainy season? And is the U.S. Government assisting farmers in areas affected and faced with water shortages in other parts of Africa, for example, with irrigation?”
MS ESPOSITO: Thanks for that question. I think it’s an interesting question, because it points out that we’re seeing ever more extreme weather events, be it too much water or too little water. We could talk about the rains in Malawi or the drought in the Horn, but fundamentally we know that if we’re going to talk about global food systems, we have to talk about climate-smart approaches. And it’s not just irrigation; we need to think much earlier on about how do we improve the soils and the watersheds so that when those heavy rains come, you don’t actually have massive floodings because you’ve got technical approaches in place that mitigate the worst effects of it.
That said, I would like to talk a little bit about our approach, which is very much two-pronged. It’s a substantial humanitarian aid investment. In Malawi and all across the world, we’ve invested humanitarian assistance in some 55 countries last year to the value of about $11 billion, much of that additional funds provided by the U.S. Congress because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have also got a global hunger initiative that is exactly focused on what are the right systems and approaches to advancing agriculture, taking that very localized context in mind, advancing drip irrigation and other forms of water-saving measures where it makes sense, helping farmers adapt to a changing climate in other ways, fundamentally always looking – we see our role really as helping these farmers shift from subsistence farming to more intensified and sustainable production – farming as a business, as I mentioned.
And so what are we doing within our development objectives and within our development agenda? First and foremost, policy, regulatory, and legal reforms, whether it be making sure that the government has climate-smart approaches, climate adaptation and mitigation measures, supporting them with those investments – a lot we can do to crowd in private sector investments and advance climate-smart approaches through our engagements with governments and looking at policy, regulatory, and legal reforms.
Another thing we’re doing is providing just a wide range of technical support. We heard here in Malawi about our five years in investment in improved varieties of soybeans and brown nuts. And a lot of the work that we’re doing is trying to create new varieties that are drought resistant, that are pest resistant, that are water resistant. So deep investments in research that are absolutely fundamental if we’re going to grow more food in a changed climate.
Finally, we’re using our good offices to really crowd in the private sector and helping to de-risk their investments through access to finance and using our convening power to engage companies and other innovators, and are helping connect them with the smallholder farmers who are so impacted by climate change and other – these other shocks and stresses.
MODERATOR: Thank you for that. For our next question, I’d like to go to Ms. Margaret Nankinga of Vision Group, Uganda: “What is the United States doing to ensure that subsistence farmers, who produce over 70 percent of Africa’s food, get knowledge about climatic changes, soil resuscitation, improved seeds, and modern farming methods – knowledge which is so critical to improve yields and fighting hunger?”
MR FOWLER: Thanks for that question; it’s an important one, because the U.S. Government does recognize that the majority of food in Africa is produced by smallholders, and the United States is focused on helping those farmers improve their livelihoods and their production.
I’m going to give you one example. We’ve recently supported a new project which will be operating in a number of countries, including Zambia and Malawi, that will be coordinated by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, and by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. They’ll be establishing innovation hubs where they’ll bring together the best and most appropriate technologies and information to help small-scale farmers with a whole variety of issues that they confront. This will give the farmers access, for example in Zambia, to drought-tolerant maize, which they’re really clamoring for. This is maize which, on a year-in and year-out basis, on average will yield about 30 percent more, rotated with legumes, which provide protein and also enrich the soil and reduce the need for fertilizer. But also other technologies and assistance in establishing markets for those products and lengthening out the value chain so that farmers are not just – and small businesses are not just dealing with raw commodities but are taking those commodities and making something more valuable and more useful to a broader population.
Maybe I could also say a few words about what we’re doing in the fertilizer and soil fertility area, because one of the things that you hear a lot these days is that Africa needs fertilizers. And that’s certainly true. Africa only consumes about three to four percent of the fertilizer in the world. But the context is very complicated, and one has to realize that probably the highest-priced fertilizers in the world are in Africa. Why is that the case? Well, it’s the case because they’re farthest away from some of the manufacturing, and certainly for the mineral fertilizers there’s a transportation cost, and because fuel prices are so high these days, the transportation costs are great, and because nitrogen fertilizer is based primarily on natural gas, those – that cost is also great.
But if you can’t overcome that problem, which – immediately or in the short term, which is a difficult one to overcome, because the fertilizer price is high, and yet the price that the farmer is going to receive in the marketplace is low, and therefore it’s not always cost-effective, what do you do? I think long term, you start with some soil mapping work to understand what soils you’re really dealing with and what fertilizers and how much are really needed. But you also begin to rotate your crops and enrich the soil.
We saw just this afternoon a young farmer – I think she was 23 years old, quite an amazing, determined young woman – who was rotating her maize crop with a crop of soybeans. And she had planted soybeans before, but with a variety that wasn’t so great, save seed, I have to say. And she mentioned that in the past she had gotten a harvest of about two bags for her – the area she was farming, and each bag was about 50 kilos. We asked her what she expected with this harvest, and I think she said 14 or 16 bags; in other words, just a dramatic improvement. And I thought to myself as I left that field that, wow, that is not just a dramatic income in this young woman’s income, but it will also benefit the maize crop that she plants next year because the soybeans are going to leave behind nitrogen and they’re going to enrich the soil and begin to change the soil structure, so this becomes a virtuous cycle. When we ask her what her hope was and what she would do with this extra money, she said “business.” In other words, she’s seen that she really wants to create a life for herself on this farm, and it involves using the best and most appropriate technologies for her.
So one of the things that this project that USAID is supporting here will be to offer those technologies as options, where the – not to force farmers into any straightjacket, but to offer options that the farmers can see and choose from to improve their farming practices and their livelihoods.
MS ESPOSITO: I would just add one or two things to that, Cary. I think the interesting thing about her fourfold yield increase was that it was an improved seed that was developed through USAID investments over a multiyear period to figure out what grows well here and get those seeds out to farmers. This project – the supplemental monies that the U.S. Congress provided in response to the global food crisis – they provided $5 or $6 billion in humanitarian assistance, but also $760 million in development assistance, and we indicated that we could use our development portfolio to mitigate the worst impacts of the food crisis.
And this woman’s experience – she planted only six weeks ago and she’s got a really positive-looking crop – she’s going to have that crop very soon, and it’s going to be an example of the crop protection we had in mind when we said we could use development dollars to mitigate the worst effects of the crisis. It’s an example of accelerating innovation in the face of crisis by giving her improved seed, and she will be able to sustain access to that – those seeds through the commercial actors that we’re working with. And so the supplemental resources we were able to put to immediate effect to really offset some of the worst impacts here in the region, and that’s exactly some of the activities. And we’re looking at a variety of these activities, but how do you use development dollars to drive systemic change in the face of crisis – not just humanitarian dollars, which are vital, but don’t have that systems change focus that we can do with additional development dollars?
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. Next I’d like to go to a question submitted by Christine Holzbauer of Financial Afrik in Senegal: “Which countries in West and Central Africa do you consider the most at risk? What will be, in this case, the help that USAID could provide?”
MR FOWLER: Well, thank you. It’s not an easy question to answer because the situation in a number of countries in that area is very, very difficult. I guess I would begin by saying that we have to realize that climate change is affecting countries in Africa perhaps more than any other place in the world, and certainly in the Sahel/Sub-Sahara Africa, this is the case.
It’s also the case that conflict is a major issue. There are – 60 percent or so of the people that are food-insecure in the world are living in countries with serious armed conflict going on, and that’s the case in the region that you referred to. So specifically, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, they all face high food insecurity situations. We see a lot of very dire food insecurity, stunting and wasting among the children.
I think what we can try to do in this case as the U.S. Government – and I hasten to add that we alone cannot solve these problems. It’s going to take partnerships and it’s going to take efforts by governments themselves and good governance along the way. In other words, in some cases, dealing with creating an enabling environment so that the private sector can come in and add to the solution, also, to battle corruption in some of these countries, which we’ve been engaging with countries about that.
But we’re also trying to partner with these countries on a variety of issues through the Feed the Future program, and that’s – we think that this is our long-term approach, and it’s going to take a long-term commitment working in some of these countries.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you very much. Next question comes to us from Rebecca Chimjeka at The Times Group in Malawi: “How much is Malawi benefiting from the funding set aside for it?”
MS ESPOSITO: Well, I think we’ve given you a couple of examples of what our funding can deliver for an individual farmer. That program I talked about, where this young woman received – is growing soybeans at quadruple the production, 100,000 farmers are benefiting from that particular intervention, 250,000 farmers in that program alone. So we do achieve some very significant scale, whether we’re talking about improved seeds or the millions of storage bags called PICS bags that reduce post-harvest losses to almost nothing. These are examples that are absolutely at scale in Malawi.
We have about – almost $18 million in ag investments last year with an additional 12 million in those supplemental monies that I was talking about in response to the global food crisis. And Feed the Future, the global hunger initiative, that is the – that mechanism by which we run these programs collectively around the world, these investments work. They’ve unlocked more than – almost $5 billion in agricultural financing. They’ve leveraged more than $2.6 billion in private sector investment and food security, the kinds of examples we were talking about, where we’re partnering with commercial entities. And we have generated almost $18 billion in agricultural sales for smallholder farmers.
So we’re bullish on Feed the Future. We know there’s a lot of work to be done. It has – now we have new investments. Malawi and Zambia have both just been announced as focus Feed the Future countries, which means that they’ll receive extra attention, additional technical support, additional engagement from senior officials across all of our different agencies to really drive change at this moment of window of opportunity. So we think that we’ve seen some progress and that there’s opportunity to do more.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much. I see a hand up from Simon Ateba. Simon, do you have a question?
MODERATOR: Simon, just make sure you’re not muted. Okay. There we go.
MODERATOR: Okay. Simon, are you with us? Hi.
QUESTION: Yes, yes, I’m here.
MODERATOR: Ah, okay.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this and thank you for taking my question on this. Simon Ateba with Today News Africa in Washington. I was wondering if you could give us an update on food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. I know you didn’t go there, but if you could give us an update in the food insecurity in the Horn of Africa? We know that the region has been the most affected by drought and the war and blockade around Tigray region in northern Ethiopia. How much – how much help will the U.S. provide them in 2023? Thank you.
MS ESPOSITO: Thanks for that question. You’re right, the Horn of Africa is probably one of the greatest – it is the greatest humanitarian emergency in the world right now. You’ve got some 20 million people in urgent need of lifesaving assistance across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia with famine conditions – really catastrophic conditions in Somalia.
And the United States – we’ve provided more than $2.5 billion to the Horn of Africa drought response. This includes emergency food aid, and to stave off the worst effects of famine. I’m understanding that we have been successful in Somalia now, perhaps turning the corner, we can hope, but not seeing a formal famine declaration there because of the sizeable contributions of the United States and some others. We’ve done a lot of nutritional support to – to address wasting, to prevent and treat skyrocketing child malnutrition. We’re doing a lot of the resilience building – farmer and agricultural support to prevent crop losses and keep livestock healthy; health support and access to clean water to prevent disease outbreaks; and support to protect women and children from the higher risks of violence that come when communities are stressed.
Altogether we’re reaching about 11 million people in the region each month with food, nutrition, health, water, sanitation, and protection assistance, but I would note that there are still really significant shortfalls. The United States cannot do it alone. There is always – there is more need, and we’ve really been calling on others to join us. We’ve had some recent success in that regard, but certainly more can be done, and I don’t want to underestimate the gravity of the situation or to suggest that the crisis is fully passed. We know that there’s potential for another drought in the – or fifth or sixth failed rainy season in that region right now. It’s something we’re watching very closely and giving a lot of attention to. It’s really a top priority for us.
MR FOWLER: And I’ll just add one thing to that, and that is that grain from Ukraine has historically gone to that region, and we’re seeing a real slowdown in the shipments of grain out of Ukraine due to the, I would say, intransigence of Russia in inspecting the incoming ships and delaying the outgoing ships there. When we first were able to secure the Russian – the – I’m sorry – the Black Sea agreement, we were seeing about ten ships go out a day. Now, it’s down to two or three. And we have something like 80 ships waiting to get into Ukraine to be loaded up with grain to go out. This adds to the problem, doesn’t help it at all, and is one of the issues that we’re going to be dealing with.
MODERATOR: All right. Thank you for that perspective. I think the time is pressing, but I think we have time for just one more question, so I see one more hand up from Kemi Osukoya. Kemi, if you can just make it a real quick question, please, and that’ll be all the time we have for questions today.
QUESTION: Hello? Hello?
MR FOWLER: Yes, we hear you.
MODERATOR: We —
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you very much for taking my question. I wanted to ask you: what are you doing to support the American private sectors, especially individual investors that looking to do – to help with food production, agriculture in Africa. I spoke with a couple of investors, women, that have been investing in agriculture, such as in modern farming, like hydroponic farming in Africa. I understand they are – tried to engage the governments – African governments – but there’s been a lot of resistance from the governments in allowing them to help with the production, even though they’ve set up their own farming and are engaging individual – the civil society.
So my question then is: when individual like this are trying to engage with the governments regarding food production and also work with the U.S. Government, what are you doing when these modern-day farming are brought – are you helping to support them, to help with what you – agriculture in Africa with what you’re doing?
MR FOWLER: Well, I’ll mention just one example, and that is that in the two countries that we’ve visited on this trip – that’s Zambia and Malawi – one of the reasons that we came here was because of the democratic revival in these two countries and the commitment that the two countries have shown recently to combatting corruption. And one of the impediments to outside investment is this uncertainty that comes with governments that – where government policies, regulations, and contracts and dealings are not transparent. So we’ve certainly been speaking with governments about creating a more transparent atmosphere and environment.
There are many things that the private sector could be doing here. I’ll give you one example of a small-scale enterprise that we saw in Zambia that received quite a modest investment from USAID. It really – it stuck in my mind. It was a small-scale grain company, and they wanted to be helpful to smallholder farmers, but smallholder farmers were located well outside of the capital city along very poor roads – I know; we drove there. And how did the farmers get their product to market, or how do the companies that want to sell it to go there to collect it? USAID gave the small company a $20,000 grant for the express purpose of aggregating supplies of corn – of maize in this in this case. And so they would go and pick up the maize at central points way out in the countryside and provide a market that heretofore simply had not existed for those farmers.
We visited the warehouse where they had collected that grain. We actually saw it being packed into – loaded onto a truck, in large bags, on a truck headed – with the grain having been bought by the World Food Program and headed for relief in Zimbabwe. And the interesting thing to me was that this $20,000 grant to facilitate development of a market for farmers had created a market for 20,000 farmers – in other words, $1 per farmer – to really change their lives and give them a market that they didn’t have and access to goods.
So I think the answer to your question lies at a lot of different levels from the kind of policies that governments create, but also sometimes to just small catalytic investments that we can make.
MS ESPOSITO: I would just add that USAID does have a continent-wide program called the African Trade Investment Initiative, and that whole program is really designed to boost regional and global trade and helping commercial actors be successful, including American companies. And that is very much – that was – the example that Dr. Fowler gave us was supported through that investment initiative. We’re always interested in hearing from American companies. We have a very large private sector engagement team in USAID who’s there to troubleshoot. We often do joint partnerships, where we co-invest right alongside each other and de-risk American companies investments so that they’re willing to take a chance and we can help absorb the risk involved in working in some of these areas, especially if you’re a new company and you’re uncertain about that investment.
We want to encourage investment. So we work with the companies, but we also work with the governments on the trade and regulatory policies that must absolutely be open and predictable if American companies are going to come, and that’s a conversation we’re having very robustly now in both of these countries.
MR FOWLER: And I know we’ve reached the end of our time, but I just want to add one thing, and that is if you look long term at the kind of challenges that Africa faces, particularly in an age of climate change, you have to realize that one of the prerequisites for food security in Africa is to have crops that are adapted to that climate change. One of the things we at the State Department hope to be doing is – this year – is catalyzing a process which will lead to a fairly dramatic effort to adapt in traditional and indigenous African crops, the crops most important – well, particular crops most important for nutrition in Africa to the challenges of climate change.
MODERATOR: All right, thank you very much to our two guests and to our journalists. I wanted to ask our two speakers if they had any final words that they didn’t get around to in the Q&A section.
MS ESPOSITO: All good here. Thank you.
MR FOWLER: And with me. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: All right. Well, that was fantastic. Thank you so much. Thank you to our speakers. That concludes today’s call, and thank you also to all of our callers for participating. And if you do have any questions about today’s call, please contact the Africa Regional Media Hub at AFmediahub@state.gov, and a recording and transcript will be made available. So please stay in touch with us. Final thank you to our speakers, and wishing everyone a pleasant day. Thank you.