How Africa could feed the world
November 6th, 2012
10:35 AM ET

How Africa could feed the world

By Olusegun Obasanjo, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Olusegun Obasanjo is a former president of Nigeria and a member of the Africa Progress Panel, chaired by Kofi Annan. The views expressed are the author’s own.

Images of starving children, epitomised in news coverage from Ethiopia in the 1980s, have given Africa a reputation for famine that does an injustice to the continent’s potential.

It’s true that a recent report by three U.N. agencies said nearly 239 million in Africa are hungry, a figure some 20 million higher than four years ago. And recent crises in the Horn of Africa and Sahel certainly highlight the desperate uncertainties of food supply for millions – malnutrition still cuts deep scars into progress on health and education.

But the Africa Progress Panel and many others believe that Africa has the potential not only to feed itself, but also to become a major food supplier for the rest of the world

Consider, for example, Africa’s agricultural land. According to an influential recent analysis, Africa has around 600 million hectares of uncultivated arable land, roughly 60 percent of the global total.

And on the land that is being used, outdated technologies and techniques mean productivity is low. African cereal yields, for example, are just over one-third of the developing world average and have barely increased in 30 years. One major issue is that as much as 80 percent of Africa’s agriculture still depends on rain not irrigation.

So what should be done to increase agricultural productivity in Africa?

First, African and donor agricultural policies must focus on the smallholder farmers. Some African governments see the efficiencies of large scale commercial farming as a means to increase productivity. But Africa cannot increase its food production, create jobs and reduce poverty on the scale required without unlocking the potential of smallholder agriculture.

In addition, Africa’s rapidly growing youth population makes job creation an urgent matter for many of the continent’s governments. Already, nearly two out of three Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods.

And in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya, agriculture is key to reducing poverty. In these countries, agricultural growth has been shown to reduce poverty twice as fast as any other sector.

Governments must invest in infrastructure that gives these smallholders better access to markets, including storage facilities to keep produce in good quality, and new and better roads. Governments must also invest in research and development to help smallholder farmers access new techniques and technologies such as drought resistant seeds. They should encourage innovations in information and communication technologies, which may also help to involve young Africans in the sector.

Second, African government s must deal with the land grab issue, as mentioned in an earlier article for this series by my fellow Panel member Michel Camdessus.

Population growth, a burgeoning global middle class, and the search for low-carbon energy sources mean that demand for food and biofuels has shot through the roof. Spotting profit opportunity, foreign investors are scrambling for a piece of the action. They rent land, use the latest agricultural methods (plus precious water from nearby sources), export the food, and make a fortune.

Africa has been at the epicentre of global land deals. Between 2000 and 2011, for example, Africa saw an estimated 948 land deals, covering 124 million hectares – an area larger than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. Many of these transactions involve countries along the Nile and Niger rivers, whose water will be used to irrigate thirsty agricultural schemes. Typically, foreign investors win concessions at low rent and with extensive tax exemptions.

Contracts are often negotiated behind closed doors without consulting affected communities. Indeed, many of these schemes have seen local communities forcibly removed from their land.

Some deals have been complicated for investors, too. In Ethiopia, an armed group ambushed workers from a Saudi-owned agribusiness project, killing five. Analysts say the ambush in April 2012 was linked to the project’s plan to use large amounts of precious water from the nearby Alwero River, upon which thousands of people depend for their survival.

At the Africa Progress Panel, we support the combination of foreign expertise with local knowledge to increase production, generate jobs, and transfer technical know-how. But what Africa does not need, and cannot afford, is the use of African land and water by foreign investors who use Africa’s scarce resources to supply food and biofuels to other countries. And for Africans, the benefits of large-scale land acquisitions have been questionable.

Africa’s smallholder farmers need protection in such deals. The African Union should develop a framework for managing foreign investment in agriculture, and governments should assess large-scale land deals and consider a moratorium pending legislation to protect smallholder farmers.

Third, governments and others must help smallholder farmers manage risk more effectively. Crises in the Horn of Africa and Sahel have highlighted the risks faced by smallholder farmers, who are barely able to feed themselves and their families as it is.

Governments and donors should provide cash or food that enables rural producers to get through the difficult periods of drought, for example, without compromising long-term productivity or withdrawing their children from school. Governments and donors should help household enterprises reduce their dependence on agriculture.

Fourth, we want to see the international community devote more money and more effort to improving food security and nutrition in Africa, an issue that goes to the heart of so many other development challenges. By weakening a child’s resistance to disease, malnutrition is a major contributor to child mortality. A global study in 2008 found that an average one third of all child deaths were related to malnutrition.

The Panel welcome this year’s Camp David G-8 commitments to launch a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. This New Alliance aims to lift 50 million people out of poverty over the next decade. And we will be watching eagerly when the United Kingdom assumes presidency of the G-8 next year.

Fifth, and finally, the international community should step up their support for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

Higher temperatures, increased water evaporation, less predictable rainfall, increased water stress and an expansion of drought zones is likely undermine production. Cassava and maize yields could fall by 15 percent and 30 percent respectively by 2050, for example. And research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) suggests that climate change effects alone will push an additional 1 million children into malnutrition by 2030.

At the Africa Progress Panel, we hope these risks and the enormous opportunities of a growing global market will lead African governments to invest in agriculture and raise productivity. We fear that such risks could lead to a dramatic worsening of poverty and malnutrition among vulnerable communities.

But while rich countries have been spending billions of dollars on climate change adaptation, such as flood defenses, Africa has been receiving peanuts.

One recent study for Tanzania concluded that an annual investment of $100 million in adaptation for smallholders – encompassing support for small-scale irrigation, terracing, rural roads and research – would prevent annual losses of several hundreds of millions of dollars.

Consider that while the U.K. spends $1.2 billion annually on flood defenses, African nations receive just $100 million to $200 million for climate adaptation through the specialized multilateral funds created for this purpose. This amounts to what Desmond Tutu has aptly described as “adaptation apartheid.”

African leaders and their partners must all do more to shape the continent’s mighty farming potential. One day Africa could feed the world. But first it must feed itself.


Post by:
Topics: Africa • Economy

« Previous entry
soundoff (209 Responses)
  1. Weasel

    Africa needs to concentrate on feeding its own people and preserving its own environment and not try and feed the world. Not all space and resources should be for human habitation. Other species need to live as well and Africa has a great tourism industry providing jobs for people based on the beauty of their natural environment.

    November 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm | Reply
  2. William

    Africa just like America has land that is not being used for anything that can be converted to farms. It is up to Africa weather they want to grow food to feed Africans and then grow food for export. Take Botswana for example they were a poor country with little water now they have plenty of water and one of the highest incomes per person in Africa.

    November 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  3. petroskies

    when that will go to happen ? soon we don't believe, later when they killed themselves , maybe

    November 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm | Reply
  4. DAVID S.

    Do not be deceived by this author...this is the ultimate mafia boss in a gangsta country(Nigeria) and hapless people(africans). Dream on...

    November 8, 2012 at 9:17 pm | Reply
    • Omotayo

      I totally agree!!!

      November 11, 2012 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  5. Hard Castle

    This is the usual gibberish spouted. The rest of the world can feed itself... it's an Africa with an exponentially growing population that never can. So it's academic whether Africa could feed others because it is simply unneeded. The author, like other Nigerian pols, should give up his Swiss bank account to help his own people and stop looking for more handouts.

    What Africa needs is more birth control and less aid money. The Western governments, U.N. and NGO's give most of their aid to Africa and it amounts to hundreds of billions a year when added all together. That is more than everything we buy from them put together... so other commenters points on Africa being exploited for resources are rubbish. It is really just a giant money pit.

    November 8, 2012 at 9:58 pm | Reply
    • Greenie

      Giant money pit is correct!! I am a nurse here in the USA and there are so many African immigrants, all of which pour money back into Africa! All the Liberian's I work with have absolutely NO intention of staying in this country! They plan on keeping an American address and bank account so they can collect all of the American money they can so they can live like monarchy back in their own countries!
      To hell with amnesty to the Liberians! I hope the USA wises up and does NOT extend their visa's! Get them the hell out of here so Americans can get their jobs back!
      That also goes for the Kenyans, Nigerians, and all the other African's here on political asylum visa's! GO HOME!!!

      November 11, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
      • dbenibo

        Such a sad person you are.

        November 16, 2012 at 6:37 am |
  6. JR

    This article is a bit misleading. The discussion of climate protection expenditures for example. UK spends it's own money to protect itself. The author is asking for a handout here as in other places throughout the article. I concur with the birth control thoughts as this was critical to China getting to health and then wealth. I sincerely doubt it will happen in Africa for at least one generation.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:06 am | Reply
  7. Carroll

    I always thought of this for Africa. With the advancement in farming here and the developed world Africa could florish to beet out malnutrition. And advance banking also for the family farms.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:18 am | Reply
  8. fiftyfive55

    I forget which country in Africa recently kicked all the white farmers off their land and now not only is the land lying fallow,their economy is non existent.Africa only succeeds when the white man is there,when he's gone,it goes right back to the ghetto life.

    November 9, 2012 at 7:39 am | Reply
    • SmallzThaGod

      I don't think whites even existed when Africans were building Kmt were they lol. Which became and still is the model of the world. No whites need WMD's and everyone else in the world to establish anything.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
    • Greenie

      That is good old Mugabe's Zimbabwe!!! Some of the white farmers farms were there for over 200 years after being colonized! Now they have inflation worse than the USA! And Mugabe also bull dozed down the slums...
      What an idiot! I can't believe we waste so much money and energy trying to "help" them!
      Screw them! So backwards!

      November 11, 2012 at 2:30 am | Reply
  9. rad666

    Soylent black?

    November 9, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • Greenie

      Bwhahahahahahaah!!!! Good one!!!!

      November 11, 2012 at 2:27 am | Reply
  10. SmallzThaGod

    What africa should do is kick all the Foreigners out establish peace brotherhood and comradery amongst tribes and African states liken to Europeans. Realign all its resources minerals, oil, gold and diamonds and all the other ish it has. Adequately tax like an established world power. Form the (USA) United States of Africa or something close to it. Become a world power and stop playing fiddle to countries with inferior resources. The reason Africa was colonized in the first damn place. O yea and take one more from the power that be and arm themselves to the teeth so that its people and recourses are never ever taken advantage of again. That’s what Africa needs do when it becomes the bread basket of the world yet again.

    November 9, 2012 at 11:56 am | Reply
  11. Blafrica

    One day Africa will repair the world for being such a drag on on the worlds resources for the longest time. Black people might become important(doubtful) but we can be sure they will work to create the food for everyone else, like how we work and give them free food now.

    November 9, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • SmallzThaGod

      U mean one day the world will repay Africa for all its transgressions. The Orginal people of the earth reastblished, normancy and decency added back to the world no world wars, racism and barbarism as the norm. O its written and its happeining. As it was in the beginning it'll be that in the end and we're very close to the end that just ROOT for all those who have knowledge wisdom and understanding.

      November 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  12. NowTrending

    I just farted..can anyone smell it?

    November 9, 2012 at 9:11 pm | Reply
  13. NowTrending

    I farted and can't get me fart alert

    November 9, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  14. forreal89

    sure good luck dealing with those idiots

    November 9, 2012 at 11:06 pm | Reply
  15. Mo Brown

    Warlords, Islam not good for Africa. Can anyone name one of the 57 countries in the OIC that does not have a totalitarian government, is friendly toward non-Muslims, and lives happy and prosperous? Dubai is the only example. Yet millions of Africans are flooding into Europe and Israel illegally. The West is told by the United Nations to respect cultural difference. Let's say China ends their one child policy and their population doubles to 6 billions. Shouldn't the offspring be required to remain where born? Where is the responsibility & accountability of the parents to provide adequately for their children? Why does the West have to absorb cultural differences? Socialists and globalists want open borders. Nationalists want to protect their culture, language, and customs. If my neighbor fills up his house with children, when does it become my responsibility to house his kids when there is no more room at his residence?

    November 10, 2012 at 3:22 am | Reply
  16. MashaSobaka

    We actually already have enough food to feed everyone on the planet. We're just feeding huge amounts of it to livestock.

    November 10, 2012 at 3:25 am | Reply
  17. Scott

    Is this idiot really advocating wiping out the jungle to grow food?

    November 10, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  18. Mike

    I would love to see Africa support Africa.

    November 10, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • FilterLess

      Mike, I would love to see more posts like yours.

      – Demanding self-sufficiency, accountability (and perhaps a suggestion to evaluate the 'African Condition' at the macroscopic level)

      – Rather than the denial, weepy references of victimization, and other lists of threadbare excuses

      – You give no quarter to the apologists, politically correct (here known as Disconnected Enablers) et al. to perpetuate their failed / futile quests.

      Well said.

      November 12, 2012 at 7:35 am | Reply
  19. floridasboy

    The one thing wrong with Africa is the Africans ! Blacks have been a hinderence since the Egyptians built the pyramids... even then the slaves used had be brought from another continent to build Giza, Luxor and Alexandria. That in itself says how useless thay are and always will be. They are the reason entire species of animals are been poached to extinction, fertile lands are turning into deserts (look a Hati... if you don't plant things after cutting everything down...), AIDS, sickle cell, ebola, and internet scamming Nigerians! After selling their neighbors to the white traders, America gets blamed for all slavery.... they give monkeys' a bad name.

    November 10, 2012 at 9:20 pm | Reply

      Honest Abe caused all of our problems–Resident of Florida–78-years–Gasprilla, Florida

      November 13, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
  20. Seinfeld adepoji


    November 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Reply
    • Seinfeld adepoji

      You are right.

      November 10, 2012 at 9:39 pm | Reply
  21. Bill

    In many ways Africa has more mineral and even farming potential than the US, but it is politically in the stone age. Until the
    people of Africa learn to work together they will always be a third rate continent.

    November 11, 2012 at 2:03 am | Reply

      They have not learned what the zipper is for

      November 13, 2012 at 9:29 am | Reply
  22. Greenie

    Well said!!!

    November 11, 2012 at 2:23 am | Reply
  23. Big Bob

    People need to read the Bell Curve...

    November 11, 2012 at 9:01 am | Reply
    • Wastrel

      Read "The Story of B" as well. Agriculture is the problem, not the solution.

      November 11, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
  24. Dan

    Interesting article.
    I have lived in Africa and traveled quite a bit, mainly in the DRC Congo.
    I wonder how much of the land would require clearing of the jungle. Africa is doing some things right. They have a number of growing universities, and I was impressed with the number of smart educated young people there are. Cell phone technology is exploding, which is connecting them to the world. There are 5 cell phone companies in the country (in 2010). They have many overlapping areas, and other areas that they cover alone. As a result, traveling business people carry 2 or 3 cell phones and extra simm chips for the different companies. When they sit down at a table they pull out their cell phones, and switch chips, depending on who they need to call in which cell phone area. This will get better as the companies expand.
    Congo has tremendous natural resources, which is also a reason for the political instability as the parties fight over control of the wealth, mainly in the Eastern Congo.
    We need to stop playing the blame game, and find ways to invest in the smart, young Africans starting up businesses. Then they need to figure out a way to control the businesses in a way that helps the locals.
    I'd like to see American or European markets set up manufacturing plants in Africa, in cities like Kinshasa. It would give us an alternative to China for our products and everyone would benefit.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:47 am | Reply

      Well–go back to Africa-watch those spears

      November 13, 2012 at 9:30 am | Reply

    How Africa could feed the world......

    It's not about feeding more........that's like throwing gas on a's about birth reduction since this planet is collapsing under the weight of 7,400,000,000 hungry mouths.....abortions and sterilization would be more productive.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:51 am | Reply
  26. Bob

    Had the displeasure of meeting this ass clown when I lived in Lagos. He's a corrupt former dictator who now bills himself as a simple farmer. A simple farmer with a Bentley purchased with funds he stole from his people while he was in power. I am thoroughly disgusted to see this man's article on CNN. Yes, Africa could feed the world, and was doing a good job of feeding itself until corrupt dictators like Obasanjo took over the countries and nationalized all farms and businesses owned by non-africans. Zimbabwe is a prime example. A one time net exporter of grain, its fields now lay unused and overrun with weeds. Do not trust anything Obasanjo says. There is a reason the nasty Nigerian gang leader in the film District 9 was named Obasanjo......

    November 11, 2012 at 9:59 am | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.

« Previous entry