Yellen visits Zambian farm to showcase Africa's ag potential

CHONGWE, Zambia — (AP) — U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen traveled from a small farm on a rural red clay road to a ramen noodle manufacturing plant in Zambia's bustling capitol of Lusaka on Tuesday to showcase Africa's potential to help solve the world's problems with food shortages.

Yellen, midway through a 10-day tour of Africa, devoted her day to highlighting the agricultural investment potential of underdeveloped African nations, especially as Russia's invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated worldwide hunger and the cost of food.

“As we tackle acute needs now, we must also take a longer view and scale up investment in long-term food system resilience. Africa is a perfect example of these dual challenges,” Yellen said in Chongwe, a village an hour outside of Lusaka. She stood at her signature podium, surrounded by lush green fields of corn and with chickens grazing nearby.

The continent's potential is evident in one statistic: Africa has 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

“We want to advance a future where Africa participates more fully in global food and fertilizer markets and supply chains,” Yellen said as farmers, mostly women wearing brightly colored wax cloth dresses, stood and listened.

They told Yellen stories of how they've sustained their communities — by sharing goats to mate to build a sustainable livestock supply and by developing collective savings groups and silos for grain.

Echinah Mfula, a Chongwe farmer and participant in the Twalumbu Savings Group, which helps its members pool money to buy livestock and food, said, “It's been a challenge. It's been a big challenge for us, but we are successful."

In Zambia, roughly 2 million people face acute food insecurity, more than half the population lives below the poverty line and nearly half of the population is unable to meet minimum caloric intake needs.

“It is a continent that faces acute food needs,” Yellen said. "But it is one that also has the potential not only to feed itself but also to help feed the world — if the right steps are taken.”

Solving the country's well-documented debt crisis is more important than ever if financing for new agricultural projects is to be possible.

Zambia became Africa's first coronavirus pandemic-era sovereign nation to default when it failed to make a $42.5 million bond payment in November 2020. Negotiations over how to deal with the debt load have been ongoing.

Experts say a prolonged debt crisis could permanently prevent countries like Zambia from recovering, leading to an entire nation sliding deeper into poverty and joblessness.

Food insecurity is increasing around the globe, due to COVID-19, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and rising food costs, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization and other United Nations agencies. Nearly a half-billion people were undernourished in 2021 and more than 1 billion faced moderate to severe food insecurity, the report said.

On top of that, the costs of fertilizer and natural gas have exploded and global prices for food commodities like grain and vegetable oils were the highest on record in 2022.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February worsened the food insecurity crisis because the two countries were leading suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other products, especially to nations in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia that were already struggling with hunger.

In the U.S., the Treasury Department issued a carve-out to the thousands of sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, to allow agricultural transactions and trade related to humanitarian aid and access to communications. The hope is to prevent some of the most damaging impacts of the war on vulnerable populations.

But in Zambia, Yellen said she sees solutions in home-grown firms like Java Foods Limited, a woman-owned company that produces low-cost, nutritionally fortified instant noodles. It targets low-income urban consumers and sources 100% of its wheat from Zambian farmers.

Monica Musonda, Java Foods' founder, told Yellen at a roundtable Tuesday that staying afloat has been difficult, since her firm is one of the only food manufacturers in Lusaka. “But we are trying to make an impact in our community — you can see what we women can do.”

Java has worked under USAID’s Feed the Future program and with the US Partnership for Food Solutions, a non-profit founded by General Mills.

Yellen began her tour of Africa in Senegal and moves on to South Africa after Zambia.