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Local agricultural processing is vital as Africa's food imports continue to rise – but not all commodities are well suited to domestic value addition

A rising middle class and expanding population are pushing Africa's food import bill to worrying highs. While rising capital imports suggest growing productive capacity, booming consumption imports – especially for products that can be produced domestically – are a red flag, according to Jean-Louis Ekra, president of the African Export-Import Bank in Cairo. They suggest economies are failing to keep pace and running up unnecessary trade imbalances.

Africa lost its status as a net exporter of agricultural products in the early 1980s when prices for raw commodities fell and local production stagnated. Since then, agricultural imports have grown faster than agricultural exports and by 2007 reached a record high of $47bn, yielding a deficit of $22bn. The value of agricultural exports from Thailand is now greater than for the whole of the African continent below the Sahara.