More than half a century of research and development work in Africa’s has failed to produce sufficient productivity gains necessary to achieve food and nutritional security. FAO estimates that over 220 million Africans are undernourished.
The typical reaction to statistics of starving or undernourished Africans is outrage. News of hungry Africans in southern Africa and Ethiopia invigorate frustration among many Africans. Many believe that the continent is endowed with boundless land and water resources to produce sufficient food for all Africans. This is a myth.
It is estimated that 55 percent of Africa’s land is unsuitable for any kind of agriculture except nomadic pastoralism. Only 29% of Africa’s soils is of medium to high potential and supports nearly half of the continents 1 billion population. Moreover, Africa’s soils are highly weathered and often require huge additions of mineral fertilizer. But fertilizer use in Africa is the lowest in the world. It is estimated that on average, African farmers apply about 10 kg of fertilizer per hectare of arable land compared to 117 kg per hectare applied by farmers in North America.
Africa’s most arable land is densely populated, with small land holdings, making them unsuitable for mechanization. Africa also has the lowest density of surface water compared to any land mass. Africa also lacks the large alluvial flood plains in large river deltas, which made the Asian Green Revolution very easy.
The dizzying variety of agro-ecologies makes it difficult to promote high yielding monocultures such as rice and wheat. Recent estimates show that less than 30 percent of Africa’s agricultural land is planted with improved seeds, mostly maize. Traditional African food crops such as millet, cassava, sorghum and yams – on which a majority of Africans depend – are unimproved by scientific breeding.
Small-scale farmers who don’t have access to appropriate mechanization, extension services, modern inputs, irrigation and financial services, produce a large proportion of sub Saharan Africa’s food. The typical African small-scale farmer is a woman. She provides 60-80 percent of farm labor, including tending livestock and raising children, in addition to fetching water and firewood.
Agricultural production is not merely managing the natural resources such as soil, water and nutrients. Agriculture is also strongly controlled by the socio-economic and political milieu. Some of Africa’s medium and high potential areas are not well served with prerequisite services, especially water and sanitation, healthcare, schools, markets, financial services and roads. It is not surprising that 80 percent of Africa’s poorest are farmers.
Africa’s farmers labor in isolation in their remote villages, unconnected to advances research and development in crop and animal production. In 2011, Africa invested just 0.5 percent of agricultural output on agricultural research and development, way below the recommended one percent set by NEPAD and the United Nations.
Farming in Africa is not easy or inevitable. Significant investment and innovation will be necessary to modernize farming, respond to natural resource degradation and the climate crisis, tap into a youthful population and leverage urbanization and the rise of supermarkets.