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2050 – Africa’s food challenge

Prospects good, resources abundant, policy must improve

28 September 2009, Rome - The recent positive performance of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa indicates a break with the past and the outlook for the sector is improving. However “concerted and purposeful policy action” is required to maintain the momentum, according to a new FAO discussion paper

After decades of decline, the sub-Saharan agricultural sector — 80 percent of which consists of smallholder farmers — grew more than 3.5 percent in 2008, well above the 2 percent rate of population growth.

The gains were driven by a more favourable policy environment for agriculture in many countries and higher world prices for food commodities such as wheat and rice. Technological advances such as the New Rice for Africa drought-resistant rice variety (NERICA) have also helped boost production in the region.

“The strong potential of agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa is welcome news: agriculture is the backbone of overall growth for the majority of countries in the region and essential for poverty reduction and food security,” FAO Assistant Director-General Hafez Ghanem said.  

The discussion paper was prepared for a High-Level Expert Forum to be held in Rome on 12-13 October 2009 to discuss strategies on “How to Feed the World in 2050”. It called for determined action in areas such as technological innovation, the development of markets and services and better management of natural resources to feed a growing population and eradicate hunger in the region.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is predicted to grow from 770 million in 2005 to 1.5 to 2 billion in 2050. Despite rapid migration from the countryside to cities and the growth in urban population, the absolute number of rural people is also likely to continue to increase.

Agriculture is the motor for rural development, poverty and hunger reduction in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper said that agricultural growth in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to be led by domestic and intra-African demand for food commodities due to urbanization and the growing population in the medium and long-term.   

The High-Level Forum will bring together around 300 leading experts from academic, non-governmental and private sector institutions from developing and developed countries. The aim is to prepare the ground for the World Summit on Food Security, to take place in Rome 16-18 November 2009.  

Managing natural resources 

One of the main advantages of the region is its abundance of natural resources, including water, although distribution is very uneven. At the moment only 3 percent of the region’s food crops are produced using irrigation compared to more than 20 percent globally.

Irrigation would massively increase yields and output.  Land is also underused. While recognizing that any expansion of land under cultivation has environmental consequences, FAO has estimated that the potential additional land area available for cultivation in sub-Saharan Africa amounts to more than 700 million hectares.

In particular the Guinea Savannah region  — an area twice as large as that planted to wheat worldwide offers a huge production potential. At the moment, only 10 percent of the Guinea Savannah  — which covers an estimated 600 million hectares  — is currently farmed. Opening up new farmlands would require enormous investments in infrastructure and technology and safeguards to avoid negative environmental impacts.   

Other challenges

There are many other challenges that need to be overcome by governments, international donors and the private sector to improve agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa and make sure agricultural and rural growth goes hand in hand with poverty reduction.

They include slow progress in regional integration, governance and institutional shortcomings in some countries, conflicts and diseases like HIV/AIDS, connecting smallholders to markets, creating employment opportunities in rural areas and adequate training for young people.

There is a particular need for programmes and policies to increase the capacity of smallholder farmers to enter dynamic sectors of national, regional and international markets.

The report recommends reducing transaction costs due to small volumes and the amount of wastage of poor farmers’ crops, facilitating the creation of cooperatives and other forms of business associations to ensure a minimum optimal scale, and the control of quality and safety of food.

Policies are also required to protect African farmers from floods and droughts and international food price shocks. Transfer of know how and technology from rich to poor nations as well as increased investment in agricultural research are also paramount for progress to be made in tackling hunger and rural development.

Challenges of farming in Africa

  • Some 218 million people in Africa, around 30 percent of the total population, are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger and malnutrition.
  • Eighty percent of Africa’s farms are less than two hectares in size and there are 33 million of them.
  • Cereal yields have grown little and are still around 1.2 tonnes per hectare in the region, compared to an average of some 3 tonnes per hectare in the developing world as a whole.
  • Fertilizer consumption was only 13 kg per hectare in sub-Saharan Africa in 2002, compared to 73 kg in the Middle East and North Africa and 190 kg in East Asia and the Pacific.
  • Only 3 percent of land in sub-Saharan Africa is irrigated, compared to more than 20 percent globally.
  • Forty percent of the population of the region lives in landlocked countries, as against only 7.5 percent in other developing countries, and transport costs in sub-Saharan Africa can be as high as 77 percent of the value of exports.

Spending on agricultural research and development is very low and actually fell during the 1990s. If Africa’s farmers can be helped to overcome these challenges and take advantage of new and improved market opportunities as the global economic crisis eases, it is widely agreed that the continent has enormous potential for growth in agriculture.

Photo: ©FAO
A farmer in Burundi.