(CNN) -- While the Horn of Africa region is suffering the devastating effects of food shortages, a senior World Bank official says it is time for Africa to focus on its agriculture sector.
Some 12.4 million people in the Horn of Africa currently require humanitarian assistance as a result of food shortages, the U.N. estimates.
But according to Nigerian Obiageli Ezekwesili, vice president of the World Bank's Africa region, market reforms to encourage the growth of new agri-businesses could help tackle food insecurity in the future and help African nations become major food exporters.
"I think that agriculture is the next big thing on the continent, and this is a sector where the participation of the public sector and the private sector can really make things happen," says Ezekwesili.
"Africa could be called a food belt but they need to take away all the obstacles and constraints to agriculture production and productivity," she adds.
Study: Africa can feed itself in a generation
Ezekwesili says investment in agri-business would also help foster new skills, jobs, industries and expertise on the continent. This, she claims, would bring greater long-term diversity to the portfolio of African economies.
"If you look at the African countries and you sort of look at the sources of economic growth for many of them, it's almost mono-cultural. A particular island of a sector that delivers ... and the rest of the economy stays dormant," Ezekwesili says.
"If you want to diversify your economy you must pursue the kinds of policies that enable sectors that hold those opportunities to unleash," she adds.
But she remains aware of the challenges that must be overcome before such policies can be fully implemented.
The lack of infrastructure, a dearth of relevant skills and unfavorable business climates in many African countries are stumbling blocks, she admits.
But she adds that recent examples from other nascent industries on the continent provide hope that the ambitious aims of the agricultural "miracle" can yet be fulfilled.
With the right participation from small farm holders, private investors and public sector infrastructure funding, Ezekwesili claims agriculture could become Africa's latest boom industry, addressing "a lot of the jobs agenda on the continent."
"I normally look at it from the perspective of how the continent overcame the bottlenecks to the telecom sector," says Ezekwesili. "Today it's a sector that, you hear words like 'it's a miracle,' 'it's been a revolution,' being used because of the level of private capital that has gone in."
She adds: "I remember just less than seven years ago, a number of the countries on the continent had less than 5% of their citizens with access to telephones.
"When policy went forward, institutional and regulatory systems were put in place and the incentive (was provided) for the private sector to come in -- because government addressed some of the risk issues in terms of what are the costs of doing business -- important public investment (went) into backbone facilities, infrastructure went ahead and what happened? Private sector saw an opportunity."
If the agricultural industry can beat a similar path, Ezekwesili is certain a number of Africa's long-term problems could be solved.