President Michael D Higgins has decried the global food production and distribution model as “fundamentally flawed”, while saying he hopes an era of “a new and emancipatory spirit of African enlightenment thinking” is coming, as he spoke at the opening of a major food security conference in Senegal.
The President also referenced the impact of climate change, the legacy of colonialism and the importance of bolstering the rights of women.
Mr Higgins is the only non-African head of state attending the Dakar 2 Summit on food sovereignty and resilience, which dozens of African presidents and prime ministers have flown into the west African coastal country for.
This is Mr Higgins’s first visit to west Africa and his third visit to the continent since he assumed his current title. On Tuesday, he visited Senegalese president and African Union chairman Macky Sall at the presidential palace, and spent time at a former slave trading centre off Dakar’s coast.
Wednesday’s speech was titled “To Make a New Journey of Sufficiency – From Our Origin, Africa”.
In it, Mr Higgins spoke about the legacy of colonialism and how some people had been designated as “inferior” at that time.
He said that theories and thinking used as a “rationalisation of empire” during colonial times had resulted in the rejection of “ancient wisdom, certain ancient methods of property and other practices of food provision”, breaking a connection with nature and replacing that with “externally imposed market practices” seen as fundamental to the idea of “progress in human achievement.”
“How did so many in Africa become so dependent on so few staples, the production, distribution and consumption of which they have so little control? How did the complex dependencies of global value chains develop and how are they being sustained?” he asked. “We have . . . not faced the basic structural issues that influence food insecurity.”
The audience applauded as Mr Higgins called it “tragic” and “unjust” that those who contributed the least to climate change, in terms of emissions, are among those suffering the most from it.
“Nine out of the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries in the entire world are in sub-Saharan Africa. As to emissions, of the 20 countries most affected by climate change, between them they account for only 0.55 per cent of global emissions,” Mr Higgins said.
“In the global north we waste a quarter of the food we produce. In developing countries a similar proportion is lost to storage and transport. How can we regard a structure which delivers results such as these as not fundamentally flawed?”
He received more applause after he described witnessing “horrific, preventable scenes of famine and severe malnutrition” during a 1992 visit to Somalia. “We as a global community have the capacity to anticipate and prevent regional and global famines, giving meaning to the words ‘never again’,” he said.
Mr Higgins said that this century should be “Africa’s century,” with it hopefully seeing the continent of roughly 1.4 billion people not only become free from hunger, but also its people respected.
“Let us endeavour, together, in our diverse world, beginning again in Africa, seek to build such a co-operative, caring and non-exploitative global civilisation . . . one based on the firm foundations of respect for each nation’s own institutions, traditions, experiences and wisdoms, founded on a recognition of the solidarity that binds us together as humans, and an acknowledgment of the responsibility we share for our vulnerable planet and the fundamental dignity of all those who dwell on it.”
In December, the International Committee of the Red Cross said an estimated 146 million people are facing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa. The situation has been exacerbated by soaring fuel prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The conference will last until Friday, with Mr Higgins expected to speak again then, before he leaves Senegal for Ireland. In the meantime, he will be holding bilateral meetings with leaders including Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari and Sierra Leonean president Julius Maada Bio.
Other presidents attending the conference include Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi; Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro ON Mbasogo; Guinea Bissau’s Umaro S Embalo; Burundi’s Evariste Ndayishimyie; Mauritania’s Mohamed O Ghazouani; and Zambia’s Hakainde Hichilema.