by Mark Wentling
The hefty burden of widespread hunger prevents Africa from realizing its full potential. Accepting that good nutrition is the foundation of life and human progress, Africa is clearly falling behind other regions. As long as Africa remains the most undernourished region in the world, it will fail to graduate from the lower ranks of development.
Even in the best of years, Africa is unable to feed itself. Despite decades of massive development aid aimed at making African countries food self-sufficient and resilient, more Africans go hungry today than thirty years ago. Malnutrition is robbing African economies of higher growth rates and prevents its people from enjoying a higher standard of living. Simply stated, better nutrition saves lives and builds nations.
Africa’s hunger problem is a long standing one that has been exacerbated by a rapid population growth rate that has outstripped the continent’s ability to feed itself. A number of countries in Africa are now experiencing structural food deficits. The population of Africa currently stands at nearly 1.2 billion, twice what it was in 1985, and it is projected to double again by 2050, surpassing the populations of both China and India by 2023. At the current population growth rate, Africans will represent half the world’s population by 2035.
Also notable is the youthful structure of Africa’s population. The average age in Africa is 19 (compared to nearly 40 in Europe and the U.S.). This youth bulge means more people are of reproductive age. It also represents a destabilizing factor as large numbers of youth remain unemployed, making for a rising dependency ratio that has an ever-increasing number of young people supported by a limited number of income earners.
Higher population densities increase pressure on the land, reducing farm sizes, soil fertility, and the quality of pastures. Today, one in four Africans, or about three hundred million people, are hungry, their lives seriously impaired by poor diets. A fast-growing population combined with stagnant food production only means more hungry people in the future who will be unable to enjoy healthy and productive lives.
Another key factor to take into account in Africa’s complex hunger quandary is rapid urbanization. While most Africans still live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture, urbanization on the continent is occurring at an unprecedented rate and by 2030 half of Africa’s population will be residing in towns and cities. Unfortunately, these new urban dwellers will add to the unmanageable burden of already overcrowded, highly-polluted impoverished slums and increase growing inequality within society. The proliferation of urban slums, homeless and landless people in Africa is alarming. Obviously, feeding the “non-producers” in urban areas complicates further Africa’s daunting hunger challenge.
The task of addressing Africa’s exploding population and the profound changes in its demographic landscape cannot be dissociated from its extreme poverty. Africa is the world’s second-largest but poorest continent, with 40 percent of its population living on less than $1.25 per day. Thirty-seven of the forty-two countries listed at the bottom of the most widely used tool for measuring poverty and human progress, the United Nations’ Human Development Index, are in Africa.
The high disease burden in Africa cannot be separated from poor nutrition. Indeed, in Africa chronic hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. More than 30 percent of African children are stunted, and a third of deaths among children under the age of 5, or about three million children annually, can be attributed to hunger. It is estimated that the number of stunted children in Africa has grown from 12 million in 1990 to nearly 60 million today.
Longevity has increased in Africa, mainly thanks to improved childhood vaccinations, and the percentage of hungry people has declined but, again, rapid population growth rates have increased the absolute number of hungry people. And, this year the severe El Nino drought in eastern and southern Africa has added substantially to this number. Additionally, record numbers of displaced people and refugees is stretching the capacity of humanitarian organizations to provide food. Until the level of conflict and natural disasters is reduced in Africa, the number of these uprooted people will continue to grow.
No country can advance in terms of social and economic development as long as a large percentage of its population is poorly nourished. And yet, that is the case in Africa, where too many children fail to get a healthy start in life because of low birth weights and/or undernourishment during the critical early years of their lives, with negative consequences for their growth, immune systems, and neurological and cognitive development. Tens of millions of people are therefore permanently impaired, making it much harder for African countries to achieve their development potential.
If Africa is to feed its people, its farmers must raise the yields of their staple crops and diversify the crops they grow. Raising crop yields entails herculean efforts and huge investments that are dependent on good management and committed leadership in every African country. To avoid a deepening of Africa’s food shortage, African leaders must dedicate priority attention and more resources to its agricultural sector. This critical point should be in the forefront of all bilateral and multilateral discussions with host country governments in Africa.
This is particularly true in the face of the vulnerability of farming to the negative shocks caused by climate change. It is imperative that policies and legislation are in place and enforced that support agricultural development, including land tenure laws that encourage making land more productive. At the same time, there is a need for strong agriculture research institutions and competent extension services. Linking these efforts in a consistent manner with fruitful long-term partnerships with research institutions and universities in countries that have a clear comparative advantage in agriculture is a logical necessity.
If current food production trends do not improve, the continent may not be able to feed more than 25 percent of its population in 2025. With 60 percent of the world’s agricultural land, Africa does possess the promise to produce more food. However, it is estimated that up to 65 percent of its cultivated land is degraded and less than four percent is irrigated. Again, leaders must do all they can to support sound environmental land management practices and policies that guide the fair and equitable use of water resources. Additionally, the trend to lease large tracts of agricultural land to foreign entities needs careful scrutiny.
For agriculture to move ahead in Africa and keep moving, reliable and affordable electrical power is needed. Less than 30% of Africans currently have access to electricity and often that access is limited because of frequent power outages and the high cost per kilowatt hour. It is prohibitive to introduce much needed agro-processing businesses under such conditions. Additionally, the refrigeration needed to conserve adequate food is not possible without electricity. Much food spoils quickly in Africa’s hot climate due to the non-availability of cold chain units. For example, the fishing industry cannot be expanded because of the lack of refrigeration. In addition, an elevated percentage of food is lost due to poor storage and pest control.
Average crop yields in Africa are one-third of what they are in other regions and one-fifth of what they are in the United States. To feed its people, Africa must find ways to improve its soils and increase irrigation. It is simply not possible to increase food production—and create a rising standard of living—on decreasing levels of soil fertility. A green revolution in Africa will remain a dream until Africa’s water irrigation resources can be harnessed and properly managed.
Remarkably, African farmers’ fertilizer use is only one-tenth that of the global average. Fertilizer in Africa is expensive, costing a multiple of what it sells for elsewhere in the world. And African farmers, who are mostly women, simply cannot afford or do not have access to the improved seeds and other inputs they need to raise crop yields. Any approach to raising agricultural productivity needs to recognize that farm sizes in Africa are getting smaller as the fragmentation of farmland into smaller units increases. The average farm size in Africa is less than six acres. This size compares with 446 acres in the U.S. and 279 acres in Latin America.
As the vast majority of farmers and herders in Africa are small holders living in fragile subsistence conditions, much sensitivity to their vulnerability and limitations needs to be applied. Particular attention needs to be paid to finding ways to raise household incomes and farm productivity when the major instrument of cultivation is the hand hoe. All proposed schemes for mechanizing agriculture in Africa need to be carefully scrutinized.
Furthermore, the preparation of available food is becoming increasingly more difficult as cooking fuel becomes increasingly scarce and expensive. Wood and locally-made charcoal remain the main sources of fuel for cooking food. The demands of a rapidly growing population have diminished greatly woods and forests, making the use of firewood almost prohibitive in some areas. Efforts to increase the use of propane gas canisters, improved stoves and solar cookers are welcome, but it is doubtful that this will be enough to overcome the cooking fuel deficit.
The absence of safe drinking water for over 350 million Africans defeats efforts to improve diets. Their exposure to waterborne diseases and poor sanitary conditions have costly consequences. Undernourished women and children often have the onerous task of carrying water and firewood over long distances, thus exhausting the physical energy provided by their low caloric intake and contributing to high levels of anemia. In many areas, water is becoming more difficult to access for household needs and agriculture. Water scarcity can easily translate into greater food insecurity.
Unsurprisingly, as Africa’s per-capita food production has declined over the past decade, its imports of food have nearly tripled. African nations spent over $37 billion in 2013 on food imports—an amount that is projected to rise in future years. Indeed, on a per-capita basis, Africa has the highest food import cost of any region on the planet—a trend that is not sustainable.
So, what can be done to address Africa’s hunger handicap? As noted, African governments must give agriculture higher priority and invest a larger percentage of their resources in improving soil fertility and crop yields. At the same time, greater efforts must be made to reduce the fertility rate of women in order to slow down the high population growth rate across the continent. The average fertility rate in Africa is 5.2 children per woman (compared to 1.9 in the U.S. and 1.6 in Europe). One important step in reducing that rate is satisfying the large unmet demand among women for modern contraceptives. Lowering the fertility rate and achieving a demographic transition are central challenges facing Africa.
Humanitarian appeals to feed the hungry in Africa will continue to stretch the world’s available surplus food resources, especially with the unprecedented high number of displaced people in the Middle East. Food aid helps, but it will not diminish Africa’s growing hunger threat. The key to feeding Africa’s fast-growing population over the long run is for Africans themselves to find ways to reduce dependence on external aid and focus, in a consistent way, on increasing domestic food production.
Africa also needs peace and stable civil conditions, as well as good governance and competent managers, if it is to feed all its people. And most of all, Africa needs visionary leaders who put the best interests of their people first and who are fully committed to ending hunger on the continent.
Enough words. An African woman once told me she was tired of reading report after report about Africa’s food problems. “If words could be eaten, there would not be any hunger in Africa,” she said. “We need food, not words.”
Mark Wentling is the regional director for Africa at Breedlove, a nonprofit processor of nutritious food products for humanitarian relief efforts that is based in Lubbock, Texas. Over a forty-year career as a development and humanitarian assistance specialist in Africa, he has worked for the Peace Corps, USAID, CARE, World Vision and Plan International.