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And on the land that is being used, outdated technologies and techniques mean productivity is low.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.


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soundoff (224 Responses)
  1. Wastrel

    The "600 million hectares of arable land" includes nature preserves, rain forest and tribal lands, to be sure. Yes, Africa can feed the world (and so could Asia or South America) if only we are willing to destroy the environment to do it, and cause the death of endangered species and human cultures that are living in harmony with nature. This is a capital Bad Idea, and utterly impractical as well. Do not believe it for one second.

    November 11, 2012 at 10:53 am |
  2. Loyal Northern Democrat

    Since they are too lazy to work, are they just going to redistribute charity?

    November 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  3. Africa is not a country.

    Africa is a land mass. So calling people African is only identies them by what part of the earth someone lives on. Saying "Africans need to do this Africans need to do that" is kind of ignorant and your arguments loses merit. Just like all the people who live on the Americas Dont act and believe and have different laws and customes , so does the inhabitants of the people who live on Africa.... It's just amazing how confident some of you Mexicans are.. i know you not Mexican , but according to some of you all logic it dont matter

    November 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
  4. Bill In The Desert

    There is no right or wrong about Africa and its peoples being behind the developed countries and other peoples of the world. Civilizations developed separately over many thousands of years; some fast, some slow, some not at all. Sub-saharan Africa was/is a group of primitive societies and cultures. European societies and cultures developed quickly, for reasons no one knows – location, resources, climate, wars, intelligence, ? What exists now is a clash of civilizations, much like the grinding of tectonic plates. There has been much suffering and tragedy as a result. Modern transportation and communication means the grinding is not going to stop. The best we can hope for is education to foster self-development and determination in Africa. No need to denigrate them because they are behind the curve. They are simply trying to make a living, as we all are.

    November 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  5. Matt

    Just like the middle east – sitting on a ton of oil, but the primitive screwheads are too concearned with whose god is bigger to invent, build, and create –

    africa – what a waste of some great land.

    November 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  6. William

    "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." Would Africans be willing to sacrifice some of the tourism and some of the environment to feed these people.

    November 11, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
  7. Rick Springfield

    For the case of South Africa, they had many highly productive and successful farms that provided for the nutrition needs of millions of people in the region. That was then, this is now, the farms are nothing but great swaths of weeds and tall grass. Why? That's because the government tossed out all the owners and farm managers. Squatters took over the land and homes and the farmers left the country and relocated to Iowa or Nebraska to continue their successful operations. Now South Africa cannot produce enough food for its needs and have to buy it from Iowa or Nebraska. How's that for poetic justice...

    November 11, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
  8. my

    Things that make ya go Hmmm...

    November 12, 2012 at 2:41 am |
  9. Richard

    The Chinese are investing billions in Africa for its minerals and food. The U.S. needs to stop squandering money in the Middle East. They will soon no longer need Middle Eastern oil so to continue to waste money and lives there is ridiculous.

    November 12, 2012 at 4:14 am |

      China is investing in America-the proud owners of ( 33% ) of 800,000 acres of land in Colorado,-for natural gas and oil rights--thanks Obama

      November 13, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  10. William

    Their are farms all over this country not just in Iowa and Nebraska and they should be able to do the same in Africa. They need to concentrate on feeding the people in Africa before they try to feed the people in China etc. Countries spend billions of dollars fighting wars in the middle east but they spend very little to help Africans get the water and food they need. With the technology they have had in the past and the improved technology they have today the Africans should have plenty of water and food.

    November 12, 2012 at 8:23 am |
    • Big Bob

      So not true, William. The west has invested billions feeding and medicating the 3rd world. And, for some reason, they seem to hate us for doing so.

      November 12, 2012 at 9:04 am |
      • William

        I don't think they hate us in Botswana!

        November 12, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
  11. Young

    This column means well. However, it's an outdated notion that one region focuses on one specialty for another (or the rest of the world). I believe a more futuristic and feasible vision for the 21st century should be that each region (even country or community) should feed itself in a sustainable way, which can keep off colonization or any conflict due to external forces and powers. We have technology that enables you to do so (including farming building powered by solar energy). Africa should not become someone else's farm or field that exposes locals to others' whim. Africa should become its own farm and field and build its own everything so that it can stay independent, self-sufficient, and attractive to its younger generations, although it will need others' help for now.

    November 12, 2012 at 10:07 am |
  12. William

    All they need is water and with water they can grow food.

    November 12, 2012 at 12:07 pm |

    Sad-take care of America first

    November 13, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  14. Crazy

    Yes, Africa will be able feed self when the culturecorruption is fade out of Nigeria

    November 13, 2012 at 9:31 am |
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