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Africa’s Hunger Challenge

May 20, 2016

African_smallholder_farmerAfrica is the most undernourished region in the world. Even in the best of years, the continent is unable to feed itself. Despite decades of massive development aid aimed at making African countries food self-sufficient, more Africans go hungry today than did thirty years ago. And while the main culprit is a fast-growing population that has outstripped the continent's ability to produce more food, a number of other factors also contribute to growing hunger there.

The current population of Africa is 1.2 billion, twice what it was in 1985 — and it is projected to double again by 2050, surpassing the populations of both China and India by 2023. At the current rate of growth, Africans will comprise half the world's population by 2035.

Higher population densities increase pressure on the land, reducing farm sizes, soil fertility, and the quality of pastures. Today, one in four Africans, or nearly three hundred million people, are hungry, their lives impaired by poor diets. A fast-growing population combined with stagnant food production only means more hungry people in the future unable to enjoy healthy and productive lives.

Another contributing factor to hunger on the continent is rapid urbanization. While most Africans still live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture, urbanization on the continent is occurring at an unprecedented rate — indeed, half of Africa's population will be living in towns or cities by 2030. Unfortunately, these new urban dwellers will only exacerbate the rapid expansion of impoverished slums on the continent.

The challenge of addressing Africa's exploding population and the profound changes in its demographic landscape — the average age of an African is 19 — is complicated by extreme poverty. Africa is the world's second-largest but poorest continent, with 40 percent of its population living on less than $1.25 per day. Thirty-seven of the forty-two countries listed at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index are in Africa.

In African nations, chronic hunger kills more people than AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. More than 30 percent of African children are stunted, and a third of the deaths of children under the age of five, or about three million children annually, can be attributed to hunger. No country can advance in terms of social and economic development so long as a large percentage of its population is poorly nourished. And yet, that is the situation on the continent, where too many children fail to get a healthy start in life because of low birth weight and/or undernourishment during the critical early years of their lives. That, in turn, leads to negative consequences for their growth, immune systems, and neurological and cognitive development.

If Africa is to feed its people, its farmers must raise the yields of their main staple crops and diversify the crops they grow. The challenge is formidable. Average crop yields in Africa are one-third what they are in other regions and one-fifth what they are in the United States. Remarkably, African farmers' fertilizer use is only one-tenth that of the global average. Fertilizer in Africa is expensive, costing a multiple of what it sells for elsewhere in the world. And African farmers, who are mostly women, simply cannot afford or do not have access to the improved seeds and other inputs they need to raise crop yields. Moreover, while Africa has 60 percent of the world's agricultural land, up to 65 percent of its currently cultivated land is considered degraded and less than 4 percent is irrigated. To feed its people, Africa simply must find ways to improve its soils and increase irrigation.

Unsurprisingly, as Africa's per-capita food production has declined over the past decade, its imports of food have nearly tripled. African nations spent nearly $37 billion in 2013 on food imports — an amount that is projected to rise on a year-over-year basis for the foreseeable future — while, on a per-capita basis, its food import costs are the highest of any region on the planet.

So, what can be done to address Africa's hunger challenge? For starters, African governments must give agriculture higher priority and invest a larger percentage of their resources in improving soil fertility and crop yields.

At the same time, greater efforts must be made to reduce the fertility rate of women and slow population growth on the continent. The average fertility rate in Africa is 5.2 children per woman (compared to 1.9 in the U.S. and 1.6 in Europe). One important step in reducing that rate is satisfying the large unmet demand among women for modern contraceptives. Lowering the fertility rate and achieving a demographic transition to a more stable population are central challenges facing African leaders.

Humanitarian appeals to feed the hungry in Africa will continue to stretch the world's available surplus food resources. Food aid helps, but it will not eliminate the challenge. The key to feeding Africa’s fast-growing population over the long run is for Africans themselves to find ways to reduce dependence on external aid and focus, in a consistent way, on increasing domestic food production.

Africa also needs peace and stable civil conditions, as well as good governance and competent managers. Most of all, it needs visionary leaders who put the best interests of their people first and commit themselves fully to ending hunger on the continent.

Headshot_mark-wentlingEnough words. An African woman once told me she was tired of reading report after report about Africa's food problems. "If words could be eaten, there would not be any hunger in Africa," she said. "We need food, not words."

Mark Wentling is the regional director for Africa at Breedlove Foods, a Lubbock-based nonprofit processor of food products developed for humanitarian relief efforts. Over a forty-year career as a humanitarian assistance specialist in Africa, he has worked for the Peace Corps, USAID, CARE, World Vision, and Plan International.

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