Martin Plaut, BBC News, Jan. 31, 2006
More than half of Africa is now in need of urgent food assistance.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is warning that 27 sub-Saharan countries now need help.
But what appear as isolated disasters brought about by drought or conflict in countries like Somalia, Malawi, Niger, Kenya and Zimbabwe are—in reality—systemic problems.
It is African agriculture itself that is in crisis, and according to the International Food Policy Research Institute, this has left 200 million people malnourished.
It is particularly striking that the FAO highlights political problems such as civil strife, refugee movements and returnees in 15 of the 27 countries it declares in need of urgent assistance. By comparison drought is only cited in 12 out of 27 countries.
The implication is clear—Africa’s years of wars, coups and civil strife are responsible for more hunger than the natural problems that befall it.
In essence Africa’s hunger is the product of a series of interrelated factors. Africa is a vast continent, and no one factor can be applied to any particular country. But four issues are critical:
- Decades of underinvestment in rural areas, which have little political clout.
Africa’s elites respond to political pressure, which is mainly exercised in towns and cities. This is compounded by corruption and mismanagement—what donors call a lack of sound governance.
“Poor governance is a major issue in many African countries, and one that has serious repercussions for long-term food security,” says a statement by the International Food Policy Research Institute.
“Problems such as corruption, collusion and nepotism can significantly inhibit the capacity of governments to promote development efforts.”
- Wars and political conflict, leading to refugees and instability.
In 2004 the chairman of the African Union Commission, Alpha Oumar Konare, reminded an AU summit that the continent had suffered from 186 coups and 26 major wars in the past 50 years. It is estimated that there are more than 16 million refugees and displaced persons in Africa.
Farmers need stability and certainty before they can succeed in producing the food their families and societies need.
- HIV/Aids depriving families of their most productive labour.
This is particularly a problem in southern Africa, where over 30% of sexually active adults are HIV positive. According to aid agency Oxfam, when a family member becomes infected, food production can fall by up to 60%, as women are not only expected to be carers, but also provide much of the agricultural labour.
- Unchecked population growth
“Sub-Saharan Africa ‘s population has grown faster than any region over the past 30 years, despite the millions of deaths from the Aids pandemic,” the UN Population Fund says.
“Between 1975 and 2005, the population more than doubled, rising from 335 to 751 million, and is currently growing at a rate of 2.2% a year.”
In some parts of Africa land is plentiful, and this is not a problem. But in others it has had severe consequences.
It has forced farming families to subdivide their land time and again, leading to tiny plots or families moving onto unsuitable, overworked land.
In the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea some land is now so degraded that there is little prospect that it will ever produce a decent harvest.
This problem is compounded by the state of Africa’s soils.
In sub-Saharan Africa soil quality is classified as degraded in about 72% of arable land and 31% of pasture land.
In addition to natural nutrient deficiencies in the soil, soil fertility is declining by the year through “nutrient mining”, whereby nutrients are removed over the harvest period and lost through leaching, erosion or other means.
Nutrient levels have declined over the past 30 years, says the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The result is that a continent that was more than self sufficient in food at independence 50 years ago, is now a massive food importer. The book The African Food Crisis says that in less than 40 years the sub-continent went from being a net exporter of basic food staples to relying on imports and food aid.
In 1966-1970, net exports averaged 1.3 million tons of food a year, it states.
“By the late 1970s Africa imported 4.4 million tonnes of staple foods a year, a figure that had risen to 10 million tonnes by the mid 1980s.”
It said that since independence, agricultural output per capita remained stagnant, and in many places declined.
Some campaigners and academics argue that African farmers will only be able to properly feed their families and societies when Western goods stop flooding their markets.