Ensuring food security - the basic right of people to the food they need - is one of the greatest challenges facing the world community. The challenge is most critical in low-income, food-deficit countries. Of the 86 countries that are defined as low-income and food-deficient, 43 are in Africa.

Despite overall gains in food production and food security on a global scale, many countries and whole regions have failed to make progress in recent decades. Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, produces less food per person today than it did three decades ago and the number of chronically undernourished people has increased dramatically.

The World Food Summit, held by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in Rome in 1996, reaffirmed the right of everyone to safe and nutritious food. Heads of state and government committed themselves to eradicate hunger in all countries, with the immediate goal of reducing the number of undernourished people to half the present level by 2015. One of the greatest challenges will be to achieve this goal in Africa, and especially in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where chronic hunger is widespread.

Boy in field

African countries confront many significant political, economic, social and environmental constraints to increased food production. In spite of the constraints, however, Africans are making some progress in improving food security. Improvements in democracy and political stability in some countries have enhanced the prospects for renewed food production, distribution and purchase. Markets are freer and private investment is growing. Where there has been a restoration of peace and security, people have been able to resume farming and agricultural production has increased. In some countries, improved food production is allowing farmers to shift to cash crop development in association with private investment in processing and trading.

Many of Africa's agricultural and rural development problems have been related to misguided policies, weak institutions and a lack of well-trained human resources. A critical factor in meeting the challenge of ensuring food security in Africa is human resource development through knowledge building and information sharing. Communication technologies are central to this process. This article draws on experiences with a range of communication technologies in Africa - from traditional media to the Internet - to examine the important role of knowledge and information for food security.

Food security in Africa

World per caput food production

Foods needs vary dramatically from region to region and among countries within regions of the world. This means that approaches to food security have to be tailored to each situation. Overall in Africa, however, population growth, poverty and agricultural production capabilities are critical factors when considering food security.

Although globally population growth rates are slowing down, the populations of Sub-Saharan Africa are still expanding by about 3 percent a year, enough to double the number of people in one generation. In Africa, food production continues to grow more slowly than population, and, in contrast to every other region of the world, per capita food production has declined since the 1970s. It is estimated that 40 percent of the total population of SSA goes hungry, and that the figure will increase to 50 percent by the year 2000.

Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1985-2000

The most frequent cause of chronic hunger is poverty. In many countries, including those in SSA, there are examples of hungry people in food surplus areas - people who lack adequate income or assets to purchase or produce enough food for themselves and their families. Ironically, food insecurity is the most severe in rural Africa, where farming and herding are still the main means of livelihood. Ninety percent of the Africans living in poverty are rural dwellers.

In SSA, the number of people living in poverty increased from 184 million in 1985 to 216 million in 1990, and is projected to rise to 300 million by the year 2000. The number of African children under five years of age that are chronically hungry reflects the seriousness of the poverty problem. According to the 1996 Human Development Report, 22.5 million African children are malnourished.

There are a number of factors that contribute to African poverty. International factors such as unfavorable terms of trade and large external debt burdens have negatively affected economic performance. Domestic constraints have also played a role. Civil wars and political instability have seriously affected economic development, and have taken a direct toll on food production by driving farmers off their lands. There has also been inadequate public investment in agricultural research, training and infrastructure. The result is declining food production.

Women in cabbage field

Africa's agricultural productivity is very low, averaging 300 to 500 kg/ha as compared to 2.5 tons/ha in the United States, for example. To a large extent, low yields are a result of poverty. African farmers lack access to improved seeds, fertilizers and pesticides as well as the knowledge and in-formation to use them effectively and efficiently. The application of fertilizers in SSA is the lowest in the world, at 11 kg/ha compared with the world average of 62 kg/ha. Moreover, much of Africa's food is wasted. It is estimated that African farmers lose 15 to 25 percent of their crop in the field and another 15 to 20 percent after harvest to pests. Again this can be attributed to poverty - farmers lack the means and skills to protect food crops in the fields and after harvest through proper processing and storage. Added to this are inappropriate land-use practices, which damage the natural resources on which agriculture and life itself depend.

Clearly, a major effort is needed to eliminate poverty and achieve food security in Africa - an effort that requires innovative strategies by Africans themselves and support by international development partners. This cannot be achieved without investing in human resources. This means putting people - their knowledge and information - at the centre of agricultural and rural development efforts.

Human resources and food security in Africa

Development experiences of the last decades have made it clear that human resources are ultimately a key factor behind any progress that has been made. One of the worst bottlenecks on development in Africa has been the shortage of trained personnel.

The development of human resources is essential for food security in Africa. An educated and informed populace is fundamental to any policies and strategies to reduce poverty, excessive population growth, environmental degradation and other factors that are most often the direct causes of hunger. This is especially true in the low-income, food-deficit countries of Africa where there is an urgent need for human capacity development and for increased knowledge and information about food production.

Information, education and training allow farmers to make use of new farming knowledge and technologies. Research shows that both formal education and non-formal training have a substantial effect on agricultural productivity. A study in Nigeria in 1992 found that an increase in the average education of farmers by one year increased the value added to agricultural production by 24 percent. In Burkina Faso, a 1993 study found that crop yields were 25 to 30 percent higher for farmers who participated in training programmes than those who did not participate.

World Food Summit Plan of Action

A recurring theme in the World Food Summit Plan of Action is human resource development for achieving food security:

Support investment in human resource development such as health, education, literacy and other skills training, which are essential to sustainable development, including agriculture, fisheries, forestry and rural development (Objective 1.4)

Develop human skills and capacities through basic education and pre- and on-the-job training (Objective 2.1)

Provide nutrition, sanitation and health education for the public and promote technologies and training programmes on nutrition, home economics, environmental protection, food supply and health (Objective 2.4)

Give priority to people-centred investments in education, health and nutrition in order to promote broad-based economic growth and sustainable food security (Objective 6.2)

World Food Summit Plan of Action, FAO, 1996

Unfortunately, farmers in SSA often lack the basic skills (e.g., literacy and numeracy) needed to learn about and apply improved agricultural practices. According to the 1995 UNESCO Education Report, 33 percent of men and 53 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are illiterate. Not surprisingly, school enrollment levels are low in 1992, only 26 percent of males and 20 percent of females were enrolled in secondary schools and only 5 percent of males and 2 percent of females went on to study at the tertiary level.

Boys running towards camera

A cost-benefit analysis carried out by the World Bank indicates that investment in the education of females has the highest rate of return of any possible investment in development. However, at present in Sub-Saharan Africa less than half of the girls 6 to 11 years of age is estimated to be in school, which means that more than half of the women in the region will never receive any formal education. This is a tremendous loss of human resources, especially for food security since it is estimated that women produce 60 to 80 percent of the basic foodstuffs in the region.

As farming becomes more and more complex and greater crop yields are required to feed more people, farmers' knowledge and information need to be constantly up-graded. It is especially critical that farmers know about environmentally sound farming practices so that the natural resource base is maintained for food production for future generations. The staffs of the organizations that support farmers, such as government extension agencies, non-governmental organizations and agri-businesses, also need up-to-date knowledge and information about improved farming. The essential ingredients that farmers and the people who support them need for sustainable food security in Africa agricultural knowledge and information can best be provided by the effective use of communication technologies.

Food production and rural development, particularly in those countries with significant food security inadequacies, require appropriate and up-to-date technologies which, according to sustainable development criteria and local food traditions, promote modernization of local production methods and facilitate transfer of technology. Full benefit from these technologies will require training, education and skill development programmes for local human resources.

Rome Declaration on World Food Security 1996

The role of communication technologies

A decisive role can be played by communication technologies in promoting human capacity development for food security in Africa. Experience demonstrates that sustainable agricultural development is based less on material inputs (e.g., seeds and fertilizer) than on the people involved in their use. Investments in scientific and material inputs for agricultural production bear little fruit without parallel investments in people. To this end, communication technologies are powerful tools for informing people and providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to put agricultural science and production inputs to best use. The planned use of communication technologies can also help people exchange experiences, find common ground for de-cisions and actively participate in and guide development activities.

It is now conventional wisdom that "we live in the information age" - in a communication era characterized by a global expansion in the reach of mass media, by electronic information "super-highways" that span the globe. At the same time, there is concern that the gap between the information rich and the information poor is getting wider. Remote, rural communities are still difficult to reach - they lack communication infrastructure such as newspapers, telephones, televisions and radios. In rural areas of Africa, the challenge is not only to increase the quantity and accessibility of communication technologies but also to improve the relevance of the information to local development. The communication technologies and know-how exist; the challenge is to use them effectively for sustainable agricultural and rural development, and especially for improved food security.

Radio provides a good example of the technological advances in the communication field. The advent of cheap transistor radios has brought radio to remove corners of even the poorest countries. Video is another good example. A little more than a decade ago, video was a bulky and expensive medium. The basic equipment for shooting in black and white included a camera and recorder weighing about 30 kg and costing almost US$10 000. Now video can be filmed in vivid color using a semi-professional camcorder that weighs less than 3 kg and costs less than US$3 000.

Communication technologies: woman at computer

Preparation of printed materials has also been revolutionized. With desktop publishing, one person using a personal computer and software packages can lay out text and graphics on pages which can then be printed on a laser-printer in camera-ready form for reproduction. Desktop publishing not only greatly reduces costs and production time, it also provides much greater access and versatility to the publication process.

Much more is now known about the interpersonal communication skills field workers need in order to function effectively as agents of change with rural people. In some settings, interpersonal communication based on traditional social groupings may be the best way to disseminate and exchange information. Farmers are accustomed to receiving information from other farmers, and their membership in particular social groups may facilitate the introduction of new agricultural technologies. Traditional and popular media, such as folk theatre, puppets, storytellers, songs and dance, traditional art and others, can be highly effective channels for farmer-to-farmer communication and for stimulating communities to take development actions.

What, then, are the specific contributions that communication technologies can make to agricultural knowledge and information for food security in Africa? The following sections address this question for traditional folk media, rural radio, video and the Internet.