Africa and the Global Food Challenge

This article is part of the SID Forum highlights for foodFIRST

As a contribution to the debate on food and agricolture pursued by the FoodFIRST coalition thorugh the ongoing foodFIRST Floriade Lecture Series (Venlo, Netherlands), the SID Forum has invited Judi W. Wakhungu to contribute her opinion on the  food challenge in Africa. Click here to read SID Forum articles for foodFIRST.

by Judi W. Wakhungu*

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing populations. But the growth rate of food production has not kept pace, and this has led to a food deficit. The number of hungry and malnourished people in Africa, many of them children, is increasing. The negative social and economic consequences of hunger are felt widely across all sectors. And yet much of the scientific and technical knowledge to further agricultural innovation and enhance food security exists.  Globally, because of agricultural knowledge, science, and technology (AKST) we are producing more food than ever before in our history. But ironically we live in a world in which almost one billion people are hungry, and this represents more hungry people than ever before in our history. Global food prices have risen considerably and this trend is expected to continue to be volatile. As global demand for food, fodder, and bioenergy grows in the midst of climate change threats, many agricultural systems will continue to deplete valuable resources such as soil, water and biodiversity. 

Agriculture is the dominant land-use in Africa, with permanent pasture accounting for 35 percent and crop land only 8 percent.  Moreover, the nature of agriculture is changing in Africa – the farm population is aging, and the rural to urban migration of males is high. Women grow 80 percent of the food, but men are the primary decision makers. 

We know that improving the productivity and economic returns of agriculture has immediate effects on hunger and poverty. But rapid depletion of natural resources and declining soil fertility threatens the livelihoods of the disenfranchised. Furthermore, Africa is the most vulnerable region in the world to climate change and yet the poor who have the least capacity to adapt are the most vulnerable to climate change.

Land and water are key factors to contributing to food security. With growing demand for water resources, many African countries will experience water stress and water scarcity. In order to benefit from agricultural technologies such as irrigation, improved seed and fertilizer, appropriate laws, institutions, and market mechanisms will be required.   

Agriculture is a knowledge-based commercial enterprise. Yet agriculture’s contribution to economic development and to achieving sustainable development goals in Africa is undermined by many factors. These include the fact that external funding for agricultural research is higher than national investments, and in formal AKST women are marginalized; that current investment funds in agricultural education are inadequate to provide a cadre of national experts; and that poor infrastructure for transportation, irrigation, processing, and information communication technologies (ICT) impede the effectiveness of AKST.

Smallholder farm sustainability requires some difficult but novel policy choices. Pro-poor progress requires understanding the diversified farming systems in Africa; increased public research and extension investments; presenting a basket of options to allow farmers the flexibility of choosing site-specific options; and creating opportunities for entrepreneurship which targets small-scale farmers. 

Switching to a global food system that meets human needs, and adapts to climate change in a sustainable manner requires tangible and coordinated steps that are implemented at scale. As a global community, we will require advances in AKST and innovative institutions and policies to challenge our resolve in order to guide us towards a sustainable future. We will need to recognize the value of a multifunctional agricultural enterprise that provides food, nutrition, development, environmental services, and cultural heritage. Therefore, inclusive governance mechanisms that value participation at all levels will be essential to success.   

This is a defining moment for African agriculture. The political impetus for overcoming the continent’s food challenge must come from the highest level of government. Governments will have to:  adopt multi-sectoral approaches to combat hunger and malnutrition, to adopt constitutional food security provisions, and to focus on the potential of regional markets.

Judi W. Wakhungu, Prof.,  is the Executive Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS) in Nairobi, Kenya. ACTS is a Nairobi-based international inter-governmental (IGO) science, technology, and environmental policy think tank that generates and disseminates new knowledge through policy analysis, capacity building, and outreach.


Photo: Feed My Starving Children/flickr