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Could Africa Feed the World?

November 20, 2012
South African Farm (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko)

South African Farm (Photo: Siphiwe Sibeko)

As Americans set off for the Thanksgiving holidays, few will likely pause to reflect on the global inequality surrounding access to food. A estimated one billion people worldwide are obese; an estimated 870 million are hungry. The geography of the maldistribution of food largely reflects the traditional north-south patterns of inequality more generally.

Like this broader pattern of inequality, the unequal distribution of food resources has both natural (geographic) and anthropocentric origins. While progress has been made in reducing the total proportion of the global population that suffers from hunger, progress in Africa has been slower than the global average. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2012 State of Food Insecurity in the World report noted that the number of hungry people declined from 18.6 percent of the global population in 1990-92 to 12.5 percent of the global population in 2010-12. But as the press release covering the report’s release notes,

 Africa was the only region where the number of hungry grew over the period, from 175 million to 239 million, with nearly 20 million added in the past four years. The prevalence of hunger, although reduced over the entire period, has risen slightly over the past three years, from 22.6 percent to 22.9 percent – with nearly one in four hungry. And in sub-Saharan Africa, the modest progress achieved in recent years up to 2007 was reversed, with hunger rising 2 percent per year since then.

Yet there is much more that could be done to address this inequality. As former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo argued in an editorial for CNN last week, Africa could feed the world.

Is he correct? Could Africa feed the world?

The productivity of African agriculture is hampered on several fronts. Obasanjo thus outlines a five-pronged proposal to improve agricultural productivity on the Continent:

Governmental and donor policies must focus on smallholder farmers.

  1. African governments must address the land grab issue.
  2. Governments must help smallholders manage and reduce the risk of farming.
  3. The international community must devote additional resources to improving food security and nutrition in Africa.
  4. The international community must expand support for climate change mitigation and adaption in Africa.

Taken collectively, Obasanjo’s proposals seem well-grounded. His emphasis on smallholder farmers is critical. Agriculture, the vast majority of which is smallholder-based, accounts for approximately one-third of Sub-Saharan Africa’s gross domestic product, and approximately 40 percent of its total exports by value. In some of the smallest countries on the Continent, agriculture represents 80 percent of total export earnings.

Yet I would suggest that two key elements are missing from Obasanjo’s list.

First, there is no mention of women. As I’ve noted earlier, female farmers are critical to achieving food security in Africa. In many countries across the Continent, women are responsible for the majority of agricultural labor and account for the majority of agricultural output. Yet they often suffer from insecure access to land, and have limited access to credit and agricultural inputs. Improving the status of female farmers will thus go a long way to improving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Second, and perhaps far more challenging, is the integration of African smallholders on unequal terms into global agricultural markets. The international commodity markets are stacked heavily against smallholder producers. Indeed, this is not a challenge unique to Africa but one that transcends agricultural markets worldwide. Smallholder farmers face oligopolies in markets for seeds and other agricultural inputs, and oligopsonies in markets for their outputs. A 2009 report by the Government Accounting Office noted that the proportion of the food dollar that goes to the farmer in the United States declined by half between 1980 and 2005, as the proportion captured by food retailers and processors increased over the same period.

At the same time, global agricultural markets have become increasingly concentrated.  In the United States, the four largest processing firms accounted for two-thirds of corn milling, three-quarters of cereal milling, and half of flour milling. Global input markets have become increasingly concentrated over the same period, with just a handful of firms accounting for an increasingly large proportion of global seed and agricultural chemical production. And at the retail level, increasingly powerful retailers are often able to dictate prices to the farm.

In Africa, the protection traditionally afforded by the state has declined as the state has retreated from providing extension services and other key supports. This has left smallholder farmers increasingly at the dictates of (less and less equal) market. Agricultural subsidies drive down global prices, leaving smallholders unable to sell their output at a profit.

All of this suggests that broader structural reforms are also necessary if we are to address the challenges faced by African smallholders.



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  1. Robin Ray permalink

    Great analysis. I would also like to point to the fact that there is an important intersection between climate change adaptation and agriculture that Obasanjo seems to brush over. This has implications for Africa’s ability to feed itself and other. His statement “the international community must expand support for climate change mitigation and adaption in Africa” is vague. Climate change adaptation should be promoted as a priority over mitigation for African countries because African farmers are at high risk from changing climates. When he mentions risk for farmers, but does not tie it to climate change, he seems to miss this fact. Also, agricultural policies can at once be climate change adaptation strategies and efforts toward food security. Furthermore, these policies have to come from governments, not just the international community. He needs to be more nuanced when he speaks about climate change and risk because recognizing and pointing out this intersection is too important not to.

  2. drbausman permalink

    Reblogged this on Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog.

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