Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

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  • 2. Food security in Africa

    The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has estimated that almost 200 million Africans were undernourished at the dawn of the millennium, compared with 133 million 20 years earlier (FAO, 2000: 20). The rate of increase in undernourishment in Africa vastly exceeds that of other developing regions.

    Yet West Africa has gone against the trend in the rest of Africa, with its numbers and the prevalence of undernourishment falling dramatically over the period, and this is reason for optimism that trends can be reversed in other parts of Africa (FAO, 2002). Countries that stand out are Benin, Ghana and Nigeria, but they were the only Sub-Saharan African countries that had consistent declines in both the numbers and the prevalence of undernourished people over the past 20 years.

    About 33 percent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished, compared to about 6 percent in North Africa and 15 percent in Asia (FAO, 2002). More than 60 percent of the undernourished are in Eastern Africa, with more than half of the populations in Congo Democratic Republic and Mozambique affected, while Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zambia show prevalence rates between 40 and 50 percent. Nigeria's prevalence rate is low, but its large population means that the country accounts for 22 percent of the food insecure in West and Central Africa.

    Achieving food security in Africa is complex. Clearly increased food availability is a necessary component but not a sufficient one. Over the past 20 years, per capita crop and livestock production in Sub-Saharan Africa declined by about 0.2 percent per year (FAO, 2000: 45). In the last 10 years there has been a reversal to an annual per capita increase of 0.3 percent. Hence, while recent production trends per capita have been encouraging, projected aggregate demand growth of 2.8 percent per year to 2015 is likely to exceed projected production growth of 2.6 percent per year over the same period. This will represent a challenge for Africa and implies major food imports in the absence of significant productivity growth.

    Food security issues

    The 1996 World Food Summit in Rome defined food security as a state when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. People's food and nutrition security needs vary over their life cycles, as do the implications for their physical and mental health and well-being (Figure 2.1). Food security means far more than having sufficient food on a national basis to meet human needs - whether from domestic production (food self-sufficiency) and/or commercial/aid imports (food self-reliance). Food security today is less a problem of general food availability than of access. People must have access to food. Table 2.1 lists some components of access. Physiological utilization implies that in addition to food access, there are other factors to consider like safe drinking water, primary health care and environmental hygiene to minimize gastro-intestinal infections that can negate the benefits of a nutritious diet. Food security is distinguished from the three forms of hunger - transient, endemic and hidden - which are discussed later.

    With increasing urbanization in Africa there is a food and nutritional transition underway leading to problems of overnutrition such as increased obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular risks. This is fuelled by supermarkets, new food processing technologies, increased private foreign investment, television and media penetration, and the increasing opportunity costs of time. While this is likely to be a growing problem towards 2015, this report does not address it explicitly. It adopts a narrower definition of food security consistent with its brief to explore the scope for science and technology (S&T) to enhance agricultural productivity, which is much less likely to influence the nutritional transition.


    The FAO (2000: 19-22) uses food balance sheets at national level to assess the extent of undernourishment, as measured by the proportion of the population falling below an Adjusted Average Requirement of 2,600-2,950 kilocalories per person per day, depending on the country and its population structures (age, sex, body weight). Its analysis shows that the incidence of undernourishment in Sub-Saharan Africa has stayed around one-third of the population from the 1970s to the 1990s. In 1995-97 this represented 180 million people. The FAO predicts a significant decline, to 15 percent towards 2030, but this will still number 165 million (40 percent of all undernourished people in the developing world). Less than 10 percent of the population of the Near East/North Africa is undernourished, and this prevalence rate has stayed the same for the past two decades. It currently represents 33 million people and is projected to grow to 38 million by 2015.

    Projections to 2020 from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) indicate that, as a consequence of poor growth in incomes, poverty is expected to remain pervasive in Sub-Saharan Africa (Pinstrup-Andersen et al., 1999). Food availability should increase marginally but remain at the unacceptably low average of 2,276 calories per day (compared to 2,633 for South Asia; 3,008 for Latin America and the Caribbean and 2,902 for the world). The situation in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to cause concern, with per capita food consumption reaching only marginally acceptable levels. The FAO predicts that of the 17 countries below the recommended 2,200 kilocalories per person per day in 2015, 12 will be in Sub-Saharan Africa (FAO, 2000).

    Child malnutrition

    Food security, as indicated in Table 2.1, is a complex set of factors, and undernourishment alone is not considered an adequate indicator. Some consider that child malnutrition, as measured by the numbers or prevalence of low weight-for-age preschool children is the best available indicator. Low food and nutrient intake, poor care for mothers and children and a poor health environment can lead to low weight-for-age (Smith and Haddad, 2000). As with undernourishment for the whole population of Africa, child undernutrition has been an increasing trend over the past three decades, with the prevalence of underweight preschool children rising from around 27 percent in the 1970s to more than one-third (33 million) currently. It is the only developing region where the numbers of malnourished children have been rising in recent years and if past trends continue, these numbers will continue to increase by about 10 percent to 36 million by 2025 - the only region where this will occur.

    The Hunger Task Force of the United Nations Millenium Development Goals program has identified 342 regions of the developing world with more than 20 percent of underweight preschool children. Of these, 72 percent (245) are in Sub-Saharan Africa. Three-quarters of these underweight children are in smallholder rural households while one-quarter is in urban areas. Benin and Ghana have both reduced the prevalence rates of underweight children in recent years, but in Nigeria these have increased, contrary to the trends in undernutrition for its population as a whole. Of the 25 countries of Sub-Saharan Africa analyzed by the Hunger Task Force, only 10 showed reductions in the prevalence of underweight children, with the rest showing increasing trends. The Hunger Task Force did not find any region in North Africa with more than 20 percent of underweight preschool children. The FAO (2002) estimates that rates are much lower in North Africa (4-12 percent) than in Sub-Saharan Africa (13-47 percent).Food insecurity and child malnutrition are much worse in rural than urban areas of Africa. World Health Organization (WHO, 1997) information from 32 African countries shows that in all but one of these countries, the percentage of the preschool children suffering low height-for-age (stunted) is higher in rural than urban areas. In half of the countries the number of stunted children was more than 50 percent higher in rural than urban areas. Estimates of underweight were very similar, with 30 of the 32 countries having a larger percentage of children in rural areas with low weight-for-age.

    More than one-half of the 33 million underweight children in Africa are in five of Africa's 17 farming systems: the cereal/root crop based, maize mixed, highland temperate mixed, agro-pastoral sorghum/millet based and the root-crop based (Table 2.2). It is noteworthy that when the densities of underweight children are mapped, those areas where the densities are highest correspond well with areas that also have the highest population densities (see Chapter 3, Figures 3.9A and 3.9C). This seems intuitively obvious on reflection, and it has implications for S&T strategies that will be discussed in Chapters 3 and 4. The Hunger Task Force of the UN Millennium Development Goals program has decided to focus its attention on the 21 'hunger hot spots' in Africa where the child underweight densities are highest.

    Transient hunger

    The FAO (2002) estimates that 5-10 percent of the global hunger in any given year can be traced to specific shocks like droughts, floods, armed conflict, or political, social and economic disruptions. This is termed transient or acute hunger, and there is little direct contribution from agricultural productivity growth to alleviating this type of hunger - except that its effects will be more severe where productivity growth trends have beenlower. The numbers of people affected by conflict in the world have fallen in the 1990s from around 40 million to 20 million. However the numbers affected by natural disasters have risen from 40 million to more than 70 million in the same period (Hoddinott, 2003).

    Africa has had a disproportionate share of such shocks. However many food insecure countries have been relatively free of them, so the absence of such shocks does not guarantee food security. Indeed food insecurity and conflict derive from a common set of risk factors. These risk factors include poor economic conditions, repressive political systems, weak institutions, natural resource degradation, scarce resources and unequal access to them, productivity declines, rapid poverty growth, social and cultural polarization and large-scale migration. Hence, addressing these risk factors can both prevent conflict and reduce hunger.

    Food aid is one of the most effective devices for alleviating transient hunger in such emergencies. It is noteworthy that per capita food aid in conflict countries has risen over the period whereas in natural disaster countries it has fallen (Hoddinott, 2003). Conflict and natural disasters are termed covariant shocks, in that large numbers of households are simultaneously affected. In such situations, food aid is the most effective insurance mechanism to reduce vulnerability to transient hunger and starvation, as households have few options. Other shocks, such as adult illness, are more idiosyncratic to the household, and they do better at offsetting such shocks.

    Endemic and hidden hunger

    Endemic or chronic hunger is of a more permanent nature, caused by poverty and lack of access to balanced diets including both energy-rich and protein-rich foods, leading to protein-energy malnutrition. Productivity growth can play a major role in alleviating this insidious form of hunger. Billions of people in developing countries also suffer from hidden hunger, caused by a deficiency in micronutrients such as folate, iodine, iron, selenium, and vitamins A and C. After Asia, Africa has the highest prevalence rate of hidden hunger, with pregnant and lactating women and preschool children most at risk (FAO, 2002; CGIAR, 2002; Graham et al., 2001).

    Micronutrient malnutrition can damage cognitive development, lower disease resistance in children and reduce the likelihood that mothers survive childbirth. Lack of dietary diversity is a key causal factor. Increasing the amount and variety of micronutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, livestock and fish products in diets can alleviate this form of hunger. Income growth leads to a more diversified diet, and again agricultural productivity growth is the primary ingredient for this in Africa. It can also contribute to lowering the prices of micronutrient-dense foods, thus allowing the malnourished better access to them. Food fortification is another strategy, as in the case of iodized salt. More recently biofortification has become another possibility, by manipulation of the genes controlling micronutrient content in staple foods such as rice.

    Changing demographics, health and climate

    The nature of farming is changing in many African countries because of demographic changes: the farm population is aging, rural male workers are migrating to urban areas, and many rural areas are becoming urbanized. These changes imply an increasingly diverse clientele for agricultural research and the need to give much more attention to women farmers and older farmers. Moreover, although most rural poor Africans still depend heavily on agriculture for their livelihoods, many also have diversified into non-farm income sources, including own small-scale, rural non-farm enterprises; non-farm employment; and seasonal migration. As a result, many small farms may give lower priority to farming than non-farm activities and may not take up promising new technology options that compete for labour. On the other hand, more diversified households may have more capital of their own to invest in new agricultural technology options and resource improvements and be better able to withstand shocks and risks.

    With rapid population growth, the per capita availability of natural resources is declining in rural Africa; and many farms are becoming too small to fully support farm families. At the same time, resources are being degraded, reducing their productivity and the quality of environmental services they provide. In this context, agricultural research must focus on activities that enhance resource productivity and on natural resource management practices that can reverse degradation.

    Global and regional climate change could have several important consequences for African agriculture. Growing conditions may deteriorate in some tropical areas and there are likely to be more frequent and severe droughts in many arid and semi-arid areas. Such events will add to the burdens of existing farming systems, reducing their average productivity and resilience, and thus increasing the vulnerability of poor people who depend on these farming systems. Given the long lead times inherent in much agricultural research, these changes need to be anticipated in setting research priorities for the future. Such priorities should consider both changed crop characteristics and changes in cropping systems.

    HIV/AIDS is rampant and spreading in Africa. It is killing large numbers of working adults, reducing the labour available for farming, turning millions of children into orphans, and disrupting the transmission of agricultural knowledge from one generation to the next. Where new technology options are introduced into afflicted areas they will have to contend with increasing labour costs and labour shortages, and farm families will need help with labour-saving technology options (including appropriate mechanization) and nutritionally enhanced foods. HIV/AIDS is also affecting the scientific population of Africa, a resource that is already scarce.

    Possible strategic options

    Role of productivity growth in food security
    In the last four decades in Africa, less than 40 percent of the gains in cereal production came from increased yields. The rest was from expansion of the land devoted to arable agriculture (Runge et al., 2003: 71). In future, Africa must depend more on yield gains than land expansion to achieve food security. In the past two decades, cereal yield growth in Sub-Saharan Africa was virtually stagnant, whereas it grew by about 2.3 percent per year in West Asia/North Africa (Rosegrant et al., 2001: 63).

    Much of the expansion of arable farming in Africa was at the expense of forests, soil fertility and water. Producing more food per unit of land suited for agriculture, in a manner compatible with sustainable management of natural resources, is an essential component of a successful effort to eliminate food insecurity and malnutrition. More production per person engaged in agriculture is also essential, particularly at this time when devastating problems such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis have reduced the capacity of the African labour force. Finally, risk factors such as drought and pests and market risks and uncertainties contribute significantly to food insecurity and malnutrition.

    Improving agricultural productivity is a means of increasing both the physical availability of food and the incomes of food-insecure people. In this respect, it offers a key and direct ingredient in the first three of the eight factors important for achieving food security listed in Table 2.1. It also can contribute indirectly to the others by way of providing the added public and private resources to invest in improved infrastructure, services and safety nets. However, increased productivity and food availability leading to reduced real food prices are not sufficient to eradicate food insecurity.

    Agricultural productivity growth in Africa is vital in attaining food security because agriculture represents 70 percent of full-time employment, 33 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 40 percent of its exports earnings (IFPRI, 2002). Agricultural productivity growth is hence the engine of economic growth. Also more than three-quarters of the poor and hungry in Sub-Saharan Africa reside in rural areas and depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, either directly or indirectly. Indeed the dependence on agriculture is greater in those countries where hunger is most prevalent (FAO, 2002). Smallholders dominate the sector and have shown a capability of adopting new technology options where the right incentives and market opportunities exist.

    Recent IFPRI research shows that each 10 percent increase in smallholder agricultural productivity in Africa can move almost 7 million people above the dollar-a-day poverty line (IFPRI, 2000). Currently there are some 110 million Sub-Saharan Africans below this poverty line. Due to the growth multipliers between agriculture and the rural non-farm sector the urban poor benefit along with the rural poor from broad-based agricultural productivity growth. As a rule-of-thumb, IFPRI has estimated that for every dollar of additional income created in the agricultural sector, society as a whole will grow by about 2.5 dollars. The IFPRI research also suggests that income-increasing productivity enhancements among smallholders tend to be particularly powerful in efforts to reduce poverty, both inside and outside agriculture.

    Agricultural research and development (R&D) investments are one of the most crucial determinants of agricultural productivity growth, besides basic education. Investments in research to develop risk-reducing and productivity-enhancing technology are of critical importance.

    Improve care for mothers and children
    It seems in Sub-Saharan Africa that, just ahead of health improvements, improvements in food availability and female education (impacting on maternal and child care) are the most significant factors in reducing child malnutrition. According to projections by Runge and colleagues (2003: 48-52), the good news is that with significant increases in agricultural productivity and economic growth, reductions in population growth rates, and increased investments in education and health, the number of underweight children in Sub-Saharan Africa could be reduced by more than one-third to 22 million by 2025. To achieve this, crop yields would have to increase by 3 percent annually, and total GDP by 8-10 percent each year.

    These far exceed recent growth rates. For example from 1982-1997 cereal yields grew by only 0.1 percent per year and GDP by 2.8 percent per year from 1991-1998 (FAO, 2000: 28). In West Asia/North Africa this projection scenario would result in a two-thirds reduction of underweight children, to 2 million.

    Invest in development
    According to projections by Runge and colleagues (2003), trend investments in rural roads, irrigation, clean water, education and agricultural research also would have to increase by about 80 percent to achieve these outcomes. Such rates of increase may sound too optimistic, but they are not unprecedented. They occurred in Asia during the Green Revolution. The essential point here is that the decline in the real price of food - facilitated by crop yield growth from increased investments in agricultural research, infrastructure and environmental protection - drives increased access to food, with consequent reductions in undernutrition and especially child malnutrition.

    Focus on rural areas
    More than 85 percent of the poor in Sub-Saharan Africa reside in rural areas (Randolph et al., 2001). Also the prevalence rates of child malnutrition in rural areas are generally equal to or up to double those in urban areas (Wolgin, 2001; and unicef, 2003). In North Africa the situation seems different. There only 48 percent of the poor are in rural areas. However, the prevalence rates of child malnutrition in rural areas are more than double those in urban areas. Action to eliminate food insecurity and malnutrition in Africa therefore must focus on rural areas for a long time to come, even though the rates of urbanization in Africa are rapidly increasing. The large majority of food-insecure rural Africans depend directly or indirectly on agriculture.

    Secure land tenure
    In a cross-country analysis, the FAO (2002) estimates that more equal access to land and increased tenure security result in more rapid growth in GDP and reduced prevalence of undernourishment. Tenure security can be achieved by respecting decentralized customary tenure and does not require centralized top-down land tenure and titling reforms. Land tenure security also provides the safety required for productivity-enhancing and longer-run technology investments to be made.

    Gain from science and technology
    Areas where science and technology can directly contribute to improved food security and alleviate hunger in all its forms include:

    (a) Physical availability

      Improved drought, pest and disease tolerance, yield potential and the nutrient content of food crops from plant breeding/molecular biology; Increased nutrient and water use efficiencies from plant breeding/molecular biology; Labour-saving technologies, with greater mechanization especially in HIV/AIDS affected communities; Technologies like global positioning systems to help track food aid shipments; Institutional and technological innovations such as rainfall insurance to link local insurance to global risk-pooling institutions.

    (b) Economic access

    • Increasing productivity in food production, leading to increased incomes and improvements in purchasing power;
    • Technology options like cell phones and the Internet that help get crops and livestock to market at lower cost and with improved price transmission;
    • Increased attention to value addition for food staples, horticulture, and animal products through postharvest research and development on processing, packaging and marketing, which can enhance non-farm income opportunities.

    (c) Social access

    • Technology options that are especially accessible to women - given their indispensable role in ensuring household food security - and allow child care at the same time, such as advice and assistance with home vegetable gardens.

    (d) Physiological utilization

    • Technologies for successful food fortification and water purification;
    • Nutrient supplementation and biofortification;
    • Access to safe water and health/hygiene services.


    The rate of increase in undernourishment in Africa vastly exceeds that of other developing regions. Achieving food security is imperative, but how to do so is an elusive, complex problem. Part of the problem is the very low current and past levels of investment in productivity-increasing measuresin African agriculture, which have meant high unit costs of production and progressive environmental degradation. The results are low incomes for farmers and other rural residents, reduced competitiveness, and increasing food insecurity and child malnutrition.

    The near stagnant economies in parts of Africa are to a large extent a reflection of stagnant agriculture. Lower unit costs in production, resulting from productivity increases, would lead to lower consumer prices for food and higher farm incomes, which, in turn, would promote economic growth through lower wage costs, higher investments, and increasing consumer demand outside agriculture. Smallholder-led economic growth could lead to dramatic improvements in food security and nutrition.

    Science and technology can directly contribute to food security through improved crops and cropping practices, labour-saving technologies, better communications, and improved quality of food processing, packaging and marketing. Women and children must be major beneficiaries of any advances.


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