East Africa: In Leading Continent’s Sustainable Growth, East Africa Must Strike Right Global Partnerships

After a year that juxtaposed unprecedented crises with rising global influence in the Global South, the Group of 77 (G77) convened in Kampala, Uganda on 21 January for its Third South Summit. The two-day meeting – only the third in the G77’s sixty-year history and the first to be held in Africa – saw high-level political leaders and representatives from over 130 member states explore solutions to fuel inclusive, sustainable growth in the developing world.

Under the theme of “Leaving No One Behind,” the Summit notably focused on boosting ‘South-South’ collaboration in trade, investment and climate action amid the new opportunities presented by shifting global power dynamics. Alluding to this emerging reality in his G77 address, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres further emphasised that this expanding cooperation “does not replace the need” for a robust Global North contribution to the SDG agenda.

Moving forward, closing widening socioeconomic and climate resilience gaps will require bolstered North-South and public-private partnerships to drive up international investment and trade in developing countries’ high-growth, climate-mitigating sectors.

East Africa’s model for Global South

Given its place at the global intersection of climate change, food insecurity and economic opportunity, Uganda – and East Africa more broadly – offered a fitting venue for the G77 to map out the Global South’s future.

According to the World Food Programme, climate change-driven droughts and desertification in recent years have pushed over 23 million people in the Horn of Africa – including Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia – into a hunger crisis. Repeated failed harvests in the region have been severely exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whose disruption of vital grain exports created a roughly 30 million-ton food shortage, while combining with the Sudan conflict to trigger 40% food inflation in East Africa last year.

With climate change models suggesting a disastrous long-term impact on Africa’s food systems, White & Case has rightly observed that future-proof agriculture will be “at the core of the continent’s economic transformation” and resilience efforts. Africa boasts the world’s fastest-growing agricultural economy and 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land, with East Africa at the hyper centre of this transition.

Last August, the African Development Bank projected that, at a rate of over 5%, East Africa would lead the continent in economic growth throughout 2023 and 2024, with the report highlighting the joint efforts of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania and more recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) analysis forecasting a similarly encouraging agriculture-driven growth in Burundi.

In the Eastern African Community (EAC) – an intergovernmental organisation whose membership includes the aforementioned countries as well as the DRC, South Sudan and newly-joined Somalia – the agricultural sector accounts for 25-40% of member states’ GDP and over 80% of regional employment, while the bloc’s EAC Vision 2050 highlights agriculture as the region’s key long-term driver of socioeconomic prosperity.

Innovative entrepreneurs offering sustainable farming blueprint

As World Bank economists recently posited, Eastern Africa has the potential to become “not only self-sufficient but also a prominent food exporter,” a view that featured prominently at the recent World Economic Forum. At Davos, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promoted the Vision for Adapted Crops and Soils (VACS), a newly-launched partnership initiative between the US, AU and FAO that involves “investing above ground, identifying the indigenous African crops that are…most resilient to climate change” and “delivering them to the world” while “investing below ground” to boost soil resilience and lay an “agricultural foundation for the future.”

In the international collaborative effort to deliver on this approach, the private sector has a vital role to play, with entrepreneurs like Gaetano Buglisi and Tonthoza Uganja bringing visions onto the scene which could be particularly well-adapted to East Africa’s sustainable farming revolution.

Upon launching his first agri-business ventures, Gaetano Buglisi, an Italian entrepreneur active in a number of sectors including renewable energy and forest conservation, developed an innovative model combining digital technologies with ecologically-sound techniques to cultivate abandoned and degraded farmland in the south of his native Italy. Buglisi identified several varieties of fruit with high nutritional value, such as pomegranates, that could thrive in this hostile ground, while incorporating Agriculture 4.0 practices like sensor-assisted micro-irrigation to boost yields, reduce water usage and support long-term soil recovery – all highly-relevant to African farmers’ current needs. What’s more, through training and employment opportunities, Buglisi’s agri-food projects have empowered local communities to generate sustainable growth from their natural resources.

Meanwhile, Tonthoza Uganja’s extensive experience as a land restoration and sustainable agroforestry start-up founder offers a similarly relevant blueprint for East Africa’s farming sector. Hailing from Malawi, Uganja founded the social entreprise Sustainable Farming Solutions (SFS) in 2019 after nearly a decade of working with small-scale farmers in the private sector. Through SFS, Uganja has identified and invested in Malawian communities with high biodiversity value yet hindered by degraded land, notably providing rural women farmers with a package of sustainable farming and finance solutions to restore their communities’ ecosystems and expand their products’ market access.

Expanding to global markets

This last point is crucial – East Africa’s small and medium-scale farmers remain greatly limited to their immediately local markets, while individual farmers lack the centralised trading entities needed to join forces and thereby boost bargaining power on the international market.