Can African agriculture significantly contribute towards feeding the world by 2050 and beyond?
Ousman Tall, Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat
There are growing concerns about the world feeding itself in 2050 and beyond, and many consider that Africa has the potential to positively impact this enormous, though not insurmountable, challenge. Is this wishful thinking or reality based on the success stories of agricultural production and productivity on the African continent? Or, is it based on Africa’s untapped potential and its readiness to ensure that everything is put in place to make this dream a reality?
According to Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, “Africa may have the potential in agriculture, but you cannot eat potential”. Discussing Africa’s potential requires an understanding of the challenges impeding agricultural growth and development on the continent. Based on my experience and understanding of agricultural development trends in Africa, the continent is far from feeding itself in 2050, due to a combination of several factors, which are equally reinforcing and which affect all sectors of the agricultural economy. Take for example, the food crops sub-sector in Africa.
Yields in Africa for a majority of food crops are below the world average and substantial progress can be made. However, boosting yields requires more and better research to generate new and appropriate technologies as well as increased funding for the dissemination and adoption of these technologies to ensure that essential farming inputs are available and affordable. Agricultural research institutes in Africa lack the funding to carry out the research required to address yield deficits. Similarly, farmers cannot afford the high cost of inputs and most countries are not in the position to provide subsidies.
Rice paddy yields by continent (2007-14)
Source: FAOSTAT-Agriculture (database), Food and Agriculture Organization, Rome
Furthermore, if the plan to increase yields in Africa were to be based on the context of the Asian Green Revolution, the costs for Africa could outweigh the benefits. The Green Revolution was based on the massive introduction of improved varieties, agro-chemicals and investment in infrastructure. Africa simply cannot introduce the use of agro-chemicals on a colossal scale to increase yields. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for less than 2 percent of the total fertilizer used in the world, not as a matter of choice, but partly due to its high cost or to a lack of understanding of its usage. Moreover, the misapplication of agrochemicals is detrimental to the environment and human health. Rather, the development of appropriate varietal technologies to increase yields, amidst a decline in the agricultural labour force, should focus on improvements in labour-saving technologies and farmer field schools.
The rate of urban growth in Africa is one of the highest in the world. In West Africa alone, the urban population will reach 500 million in 2050. Increased urbanisation translates into a substantial decline in agricultural workers, who are predominantly rural dwellers. In fact, the ratio of the non-agricultural to the agricultural population in West Africa is expected to increase by 250 percent in 2050. Urbanisation is moving in the same direction for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and keeping up the pace of food production on the continent will require massive transformation in the agricultural production system.
Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change. The continent is experiencing recurrent droughts and floods for which tolerant and resistant crop varieties need to be developed. Using different climate models, the World Bank predicts that many parts of sub-Saharan Africa will become hotter and drier and that the extent of drylands might increase up to 20% by 2030. Land for crop production in some African countries, especially those in the tropical rainforest zones, will become scarce as a result of the global pressure to spare the forest and preserve the environment. Further warming of the earth will increase land unsuitable for farming and at the same time affect crop yields. In a World Bank report on extreme climate and its impacts, a warming of 1.5°C would reduce sorghum yields alone by 10%.
Notwithstanding these challenges, the continent offers numerous opportunities for agricultural growth and development. There is a huge market potential, supported by an increasing demand in food staples as a result of increased population growth and per capita consumption. The level of regional integration and co-operation taking place within the Regional Economic Communities will stimulate agricultural production and market linkages. Whereas agricultural land in other parts of the world is becoming scarce, Africa is home to 60% of the world’s uncultivated arable land. The continent is presently home to 19 percent of the world’s youth population, which is expected to double by 2030. This young, and largely unemployed and unskilled population could become the engine of agricultural growth.
The theme of this year’s World Food Day is “Climate is changing. Food and Agriculture Must too”. If Africa is to be an example for the rest of the world in how to sustainably increase food production to feed a growing population, then the policy trajectory of the food and agricultural economy must be rethought in order to appropriately factor in not only climate change, which is vital, but all of the issues mentioned above. African researchers and technicians can play a crucial role in addressing these issues by actively and emphatically guiding their policy makers. Unless we do so, per capita food production will diminish and African agriculture’s opportunity to show the world how to feed itself by 2050 will remain an illusion.