Agriculture & Famine

The global food supply

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization estimates the world produces enough food to provide every person with 2,700 calories per day (adults need 2,100).

Yet in sub-Saharan Africa, a quarter of the population is undernourished and many countries experience famines. Food clearly isn’t where it’s most needed.

Improving the global distribution of food is complex with the world's system of market and trade economies. Most experts think the key to reducing hunger in Africa is to increase the supply of food locally.

Increasing local supplies in Africa

Land not in use

Sub-Saharan Africa has an estimated 200 million hectares of uncultivated land within six hours' travel time of a market.

Since 2008, African food production per person has been rising for the first time in decades. However, food still has to be imported. And population growth across the continent is increasing demand.

There is land to grow more food. But land has to be used effectively. Average yields are low in Africa and often farmers are blamed.

  • Harvesting vegetables
  • Fruit and vegetables at the market

In 11 countries across the ‘Guinea belt’ (stretching from West Africa to Mozambique), only half of usable land is currently being farmed.

However, a study in the UK has shown that when growing conditions are similar to those in Africa – no fertiliser, pesticide, irrigation or other treatments are available – yields are just as small. It isn’t African farmers, but the lack of technology at their disposal.

Technology in farming

Fertilisers are expensive, but they help to increase harvests. This is particularly important in Africa, where soils are often poor and exhausted by continual use (many farmers cannot afford to let land lie fallow).

Malawi began exporting food for the first time when cheaper fertilisers were made available to its farmers.

Precious water

Drip-feeding reduces the amount of water used on fields by around 40%.

Irrigation technology (e.g. drip-feed systems, micro-sprinklers) also boosts yields. Unfortunately, many African farmers need financial assistance to invest in such technology. In Ethiopia, for example, less than 4% of land is irrigated.

Specially-developed plants (from ‘hybrid seeds’) give higher yields and are less susceptible to diseases. Maize hybrids have been available for some time and new varieties of African crops such as cassava and sorghum are being introduced. However, hybrid seeds usually cost more and take-up remains low. In Ghana, for example, only 3% of the country’s seed is hybrid (compared to 90% in Brazil).

Clever food

In sub-Saharan Africa, over a quarter of young children (under five) are underweight. Many African countries are trying to increase local harvests to tackle this problem.

Essential nutrients

To stay healthy, people need to eat foods containing essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A.

But keeping people healthy isn’t only about having enough food. It's also to do with what's eaten. Poor people commonly lack essential foods, such as meat and fish which provide protein.

When children suffer from malnutrition (either from not eating enough food or the right foods), they cannot develop as they should, physically or mentally. Research shows malnourished children find it hard to concentrate in lessons and often score lower in tests.

African farmers are beginning to sow crops which have higher levels of essential nutrients. An orange maize/corn variety is being grown in Uganda, Mozambique and Zambia. This maize has high levels of beta-carotene (also found in carrots), which is converted by the body into Vitamin A.

Farming and climate change

  • Agriculture in Burkina Faso
  • A piece of land to be turned into farmland, Niger

Crop losses

Experts forecast climate change may reduce certain crop yields by 20-30% in the next 30 years and the largest losses are likely to be in developing countries.

Despite the availability of farming technology to increase harvests, many African farmers are worried about the future. Over the last decade, they have seen ‘big changes’ in the continent’s weather patterns. As well as less rainfall, many farmers speak of heavier rains when they come, bringing floods.

This unpredictability in the weather is believed to be caused by climate change. Losses to harvests are causing huge problems across Africa, where farmers rely on a regular pattern of the seasons. Countries are already making efforts to adapt their agriculture.

In Mali, for example, ‘short-cycle’ crops are being sown, which can be harvested in three months rather than the more usual five.

However, adapting to climate change will take time and investment, especially since a number of solutions are needed for the different soils, habitats and climate conditions across the African continent. But this process of adaption is vital. Hunger and insecurity cause conflicts over land and water. And conflicts lead to greater famine. Therefore a lot rests on creating an efficient and successful farming system in Africa, so the continent can feed its people.