If Africa Produces Enough Food to Feed Itself, Why Is It Hungry?

Instead of teaching people to grow food more efficiently, our efforts to support development should emphasize infrastructure development.

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Women sell vegetables and other food in a market on World Food Day in Lagos, Nigeria, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012. The U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization is marking World Food Day on Tuesday, a day dedicated to highlighting the importance of global food security. The FAO said hunger is declining in Asia and Latin America but is rising in Africa. One in eight people around the world goes to bed hungry every night.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

I had been in Abuja, Nigeria, just a two days ago, and yesterday found myself on a train between Amsterdam and the Hague, en route to another meeting, this time with my European counterparts from 13 countries. Even though there was an intermittent snow and the weather was unusually cold, it was striking that nearly every inch of ground available along my train route was under tillage. There was no fallow ground. The Dutch clearly were utilizing all that nature had given it. I thought about what I had seen between the Abuja airport and the city center the day before. There, in Abuja, was mile after mile of unused land. I am not one in favor of using every bit of space on earth to grow food, but here clearly was land that could be utilized right away for food production. There were no forests to preserve. It was largely flat empty land used by no one and probably very little wildlife. No doubt it would eventually be part of an urban megapolis, but for now it was prime agriculture land totally unused in a time of hunger, or at least that is what we are told, and what I have come to believe.

Yet, at a dinner in the Hague with my counterparts the speaker, Dr. Ton Dietz, the director of the Afrika Studie Centrum, based in Leiden, Netherlands, one of Europe's leading think tanks on Africa, laid out the results of research that clearly questions the image of Africa so commonly seen as a hungry continent. His research presented showed that total basic food production in Africa has actually not only kept pace with population growth, but has increased proportionally faster than has the population. Livestock production was more of a mixed story. In some countries, such as Uganda, the Sudans, Kenya, Burundi and Mozambique, food production has not kept pace with population growth. However, overall Africa produces more than enough food to feed itself.

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The Centrum's research showed that the amount of calories consumed per person had actually increased in all of west Africa, but had decreased in all east African countries between 1961 to 2009 despite the region having some of the most fertile agricultural land available on the continent. According to Ton, in 1961 every nation in Africa produced domestically more than 100 percent of its domestic food supply. Now most African countries produce less than its domestic supply and therefore are becoming more dependent on food imports, even though they grow enough food to feed themselves. The greatest changes in the distribution of components of the domestic food supply occurred in Benin, Mozambique and the two Sudans. All three show large drops in the portion domestically produced, and large increases in imported food and stock variations. Sudan and Mozambique can be partly explained by the wars that plagued both, but during the first part of this century Mozambique has had a domestic peace in a nation with extraordinary agriculture potential. Yet Benin is one of three countries with the highest caloric increase per person over the same period. The research showed that post-harvest loss is the major problem in the Sudans and not weather conditions. The same is true for Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and Mozambique.

While this blog cannot do justice to the full research, what all this does suggest is that Africa currently produces more than enough to feed itself, yet many countries are net importers of food when years ago most were net exporters. However, the ability to trade regionally and move food across borders is severely limited by lack of infrastructure as well as by the political difficulty of cross-border trade. The research also more than suggests that post-harvest losses are significant, and that Africa lacks infrastructures for adequate storage and refrigeration necessary to get food beyond the land upon which it is gone.

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To me this also suggests that our approach with development aid might be misguided. Instead of teaching people to grow food more efficiently, our efforts to support development might be more effective if we emphasized infrastructure development and regional integration. It is clear that Africans are quite capable of knowing how to grow their own food and feeding themselves. What is lacking is basic infrastructure, both physical and political, that allows Africans to increase the profitability of agriculture and to have the support from political systems that permit them to benefit more. Here are the opportunities for our economies to jointly benefit by working together to put in place infrastructures that serve all our goals in a partnership with Africa.

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