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The world has come to recognize that chronic hunger is not due to lack of food. It is due to poverty. In many countries there are abundant 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.

Chronic Hunger and Malnutrition

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA (SSA) is an area of the world in which chronic hunger continues to be widespread. Two hundred four million were affected by malnutrition in 1990. The number of African children under five years of age who are chronically hungry reflects the seriousness of the problem. According to the Human Development Report (1996), commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme, 22.5 million African children are malnourished.

It is estimated that 40 percent of the population of SSA goes hungry, and that the figure will increase to 50 percent by the year 2000. SSA is worse off nutritionally today than it was 30 years ago and hunger and malnutrition remain rampant. Ironically, food insecurity is the most severe in rural Africa, where farming and herding are the main means of livelihood. Ninety percent of the Africans living in poverty are rural residents.

Poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1985-2000

Root Causes of Poverty

IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA, the number of people living in poverty increased from 184 million in 1985 to 216 million in 1990. It is projected to rise to 300 million by the year 2000. SSA is the only region in the world where poverty is expected to increase.

A number of factors have contributed to African poverty. African economies have performed poorly since the 1980s, in part due to adverse international conditions, such as unfavourable terms of trade and their external debt burden, which stood at US$232.2 billion for SSA in 1995. Moreover, due in part to Structural Adjustment Programmes, since the 1980s, Africa has witnessed a reduction in government expenditure on social services and investments in infrastructure essential for rapid economic development.

While Africa's failure to feed itself needs to be seen in an international context, domestic constraints have also played a role. These have included inappropriate agricultural policies such as a bias favouring export crops; inadequate public investment in farm research, extension and infrastructure and a failure to extend agricultural credit and extension services to women, who produce 50 to 80 percent of Africa's food. Civil wars and political instability have also taken a toll on food production. Added to this are unfavourable weather conditions, eroded soils and other environmental stress.

The Lost Decade (1980-1991): Annual Growth of Per Capita GNP

Declining Self-Sufficient

While SSA's food self-sufficiency stood at 98 percent in 1961, it had declined to 78 percent by 1978 and the situation has not improved since then. In fact, food production in Africa continues to grow more slowly than population. In contrast to every other region of the world, per capita food production has declined since the 1960s.

Cereals, which supply two-thirds to four fifths of calories, are chronically in deficit. Thus, cereal imports have increased from 1.2 million tonnes in 1961 to 18.2 million in 1990. SSA is the region that relies most heavily on imported food. But there is an increasing inability to pay for these imports. As a result, one in every five Africans is now dependent on food aid.

Africa's agricultural productivity is very Low, averaging 300-500 kg/ha, as compared with 2.5 tons/ha in the United States. The low yields are largely a result of poverty. African farmers lack adequate means to acquire the "green revolution" inputs needed for greater productivity, such as improved seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation facilities. Sub-Saharan application of fertilizers is the lowest in the world, at 11 kg/ha, compared with the world average of 62 kg/ha. The majority of Africans still use a machete to clear the land and a stick or hand hoe to loosen the soil before planting. Farms are small, soils eroded and Lacking in fertility and rainfall variable.

Moreover, much of Africa's food is wasted. It is estimated that African farmers Lose 15-25 percent of their crop in the fields and another 15-20 percent after harvest to rats, birds, locusts and other pests. Again, this is a problem of poverty, because African farmers lack the means and skills to protect food through proper storage and rapid processing or transport of perishable produce.

Impact on Consumption

Poverty has had a negative impact on food consumption, as well as on its production and preservation. Africans simply do not have enough money to acquire adequate food for a normal and healthy life. Decontrol of food prices, removal of consumer subsidies and increasing unemployment, especially since the 1980s, have all weakened the purchasing power of African consumers. In turn, malnutrition and undernutrition reduce people's ability to work by draining them of energy and weakening their immune systems, making them more susceptible to disease. This further perpetuates poverty.

Food production

Reason for encouragement

IN SPITE of political, economic and social constraints, Africans at various levels are making commendable progress in improving food security. With regard to research, improvements have been recorded in producing varieties of cassava, maize, millet, sorghum and beans. New farming systems, including agroforestry, integration of farming with raising livestock and increased application of manure and mulch promise much higher yields, with modest use of chemical fertilizers.

The successful Machakos experiment in Kenya with conservation tillage, contour farming and terracing and Burkina Faso's construction of stone walls along contour lines, as well as the Cinzana agricultural research experiments on traditional crops involving farmers in Mali have resulted in increases in crop production for domestic consumption, as well as for export to generate badly needed foreign exchange.

Improvements in democracy and political stability have boosted prospects for renewed food production, distribution and purchase. Already in Ethiopia and Mozambique, agricultural production has increased, even under less than ideal weather conditions, mainly because of the restoration of peace and security that has enabled the resumption of farming by returning refugees and displaced persons.

However, a lot remains to be done to eliminate poverty in Africa. The UN General Assembly's proclamation of 1 996 as the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty (to be followed by a decade to eradicate poverty), and the World Food Summit in Rome should be used to enhance awareness, among governments, policy makers and others interested in development, of the links between poverty and food insecurity. These occasions also offer opportunities to promote the exchange of information and experiences on effective strategies to end poverty and hunger.

Since sub-Saharan Africa is expected to experience low incomes, a high incidence of poverty, insufficient per capita food production and significant malnutrition for some time to come, special efforts are needed by international development partners to provide the necessary support to the commendable efforts and innovative strategies Africans themselves are devising to lay a solid foundation for sustainable development in the next milennium. Food security should be seen not as an isolated problem but as an essential component that needs to be addressed within a country's overall strategy to eradicate poverty.

Agricultural research in needed to boost yields

This fact sheet was contributed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
For further information, please contact
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Regional Bureau for Africa/Division of Public Affairs One UN Plaza New York, NY 10017 U.S.A
Tel: (1-212) 906-5920; Fax: (1-212) 906-5364

Additional reading:

Human Development Report 1996, UNDP; World Agriculture: Towards 2010, FAO, 1995; Overcoming Global Hunger, World sank, Edited by I. Serageldin and P. Landel-Mills 1994; Foreign Policy, winter 1995-96; Foreign Affairs, May-June 1996; Africa Recovery Briefing Paper No. 6 September 1992; D.L. Sparks in SSA Encyclopedia, 15th Edition, 1996.

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