11/09/2017 03:59 SAST | Updated 11/09/2017 03:59 SAST

Can Agriculture Help Tackle Africa's Looming Food Crisis?

Africa is known as a continent endowed with rich natural resources; yet, many African countries are ranked top among the poorest on earth.

Siphiwe Sibeko/ Reuters
A street vendor waits for customers as she sits in front of her fruit-and-vegetables stall in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Global food demand is expected to increase substantially by 2050, owing to rapid population growth, urbanisation and rising incomes, especially in developing economies. Consequently, this is driving up food demand and poses significant challenges for food security, especially in Africa.

According to the most recent UN estimates, the world population is nearly 7.6 billion as of mid-2017 [see table 1]. This implies that the world has added approximately 1 billion inhabitants over the last 12 years.

Table 1. Population of the world and wegions, 2017, 2030, and 2050

Population (millions)






7 550

8 551

9 772


1 256

1 704

2 528


4 504

4 947

5 257





Latin America and the Caribbean




Northern America








Source: UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017)

The UN estimates that by 2050, the world will be home to more than 9.7 billion people. Africa is expected to house more than 2.5 billion people, slightly more than a quarter of the world's population. This is raising fundamental questions with regards to the ability of the continent to effectively meet its growing food demand.

Africa, among all the continents in the world, faces the hardest challenges. Corruption and political dictatorship are the two top challenges eating up the soul of and are major factors linked to the failure of many states in the continent. Factors such as poor governance, inferior political institutions, weak legislative and judicial systems, among others, are mooted as the core causes of corruption and dictatorship in the African states.

While corruption, in particular, is quickly becoming a global phenomenon that every country in the world is confronted with, in most African states, corruption and dictatorship are not a new trend. It is apparent that since independence, cases of official abuse of public resources for selfish enrichment have been and continue to be the feature of most states in Africa. Areas of natural resources [mainly land and oil] and financial resources are usually the main targets of most African leaders immediately after they are elected into power, whether by crook or hook.

In countries such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria, South Africa and few others where corruption has become rampant and the rule of law is not respected by leaders, wealth becomes captured, income inequality, unemployment and poverty levels rise and governing capacity is reduced. Unfortunately, the poor tend to be the ones having to bear most of the burden thereof.

If Africa wants to see growth and development, it must reduce its dependency on the West and start relying on itself.

However, having said that, it must be said that the West has played a significant role in exacerbating both corruption and dictatorship in Africa. This statement, however, should not be interpreted as saying the West is the direct cause of corruption and dictatorship in Africa, but that the West has certainly played a key role in impeding the eradication thereof.

For example, it is the West that helps keep corrupt African leaders in power and continue supporting them through the so-called "foreign aid" that supposedly facilitate development and reduce hunger in Africa. While in most instances foreign assistance helps feed the hungry, it renders some African states prisoners to the West and creates a dependency culture of the least-developed countries in donor countries.

Of course, that is not to say, "foreign aid" is all bad. For example, recent reports by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) suggest that foreign aid continue to support South Sudan's refugees that are flowing in numbers in neighbouring countries. Moreover, Africa accounts for around 20 percent of US aid, with Egypt, Kenya and South Sudan being the biggest beneficiaries.

Africa is known as a continent endowed with rich natural resources, including precious metals [such as diamonds, gold, platinum, etc.], significant reserves of oil and gas and large tracts of arable land; yet, many African countries are ranked top among the poorest states on earth. Notwithstanding that, the exploitation and sale thereof to Western companies does not make the situation any better or different, but only strengthen Africa's dependency on the West. If Africa wants to see growth and development, it must reduce its dependency on the West and start relying on itself.

Interestingly, the African continent has something quite unique -- a young population, which is the greatest asset at its disposal. For example, the World Bank estimates that in around 40 African countries, over 50 percent of the population is under 20. By contrast, in 30 richer countries, less than 20 percent of the population is under 20.

Unfortunately, Africa is not taking full advantage of its young population. It is known that, everywhere in the world, young people are a strong force for both social upliftment and political change. In South Africa, for instance, young people play a key role in the political arena and they are making their voices heard.

It is not only in political arena where the African youth must challenge the status quo.

Mmusi Maimane (leader of the DA) and Julius Malema (leader of another significant opposition party, the EFF) are both in their thirties and were responsible for the recent vote of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma. The motion was not successful, given the large number of representatives from the governing party in Parliament. Most African countries can learn something from South Africa in this regard.

It is not only in political arena where the African youth must challenge the status quo. In most African countries, including South Africa, the agricultural sector is in dire need for youth involvement. Given the increasing food demand on the continent, revitalising agriculture must become a priority for African countries. Agriculture has a key role to play in addressing the continent's food security and mitigating the risk of a potential food crisis emanating from the rapid increase in the population.

Owing to the sustained neglect of the agriculture, Africa has shifted from being an exporter of agricultural products in the 1960s to a net importer currently. The attributes in this regard include poor infrastructure, the lack of developed supply chains and insufficient financing, which contribute to low yields and unreliable supply from smallholder farmers, who make up the majority of the sector's production base.

Africa must and with great urgency address the challenges thereof. Failing to address these challenges will lead to the demise of the agricultural sector in some states. Perhaps it might help the African states to revisit the Maputo declaration on agriculture and food security, especially considering the fact that investment in the agricultural sector across Africa is way lower than what was proposed in Maputo in 2003.

It has been long advised that long-term investment in agriculture has a potential to address food insecurity and reduce poverty and unemployment, particularly among the African youth. Perhaps, in that way, Africans could avoid the looming food crisis.

* This article was first published by the World Financial Review Magazine on August 29 2017.