Africa is so rich in farmland – so why is it still hungry?

Anthony Kamande Agriculture, Food & livelihoods, Food security

Farmers who can’t afford fertiliser or pesticides will never feed themselves or our continent, say Anthony Kamande and Dailes Judge. That means, alongside action on climate change, conflict and market reforms, leaders and policymakers at this week’s African Union meeting must address massive under-investment in agriculture

Sarah, a farmer in Chimanimani, in eastern Zimbabwe. In an area facing water management challenges and drought, an irrigation scheme supported by Oxfam and partners is helping to water her crops (picture: Cynthia Matonhodze/Oxfam)

It’s been more than two months since it rained in Nakuru County, Kenya, and Jane’s bean crop is long gone. Her only hope on her small plot of 0.8 hectares is the maize crop – but it will also be gone if it doesn’t rain in the next two weeks. In a normal year, it would have rained for three consecutive months during this long rainy season. But normal years are long extinct and it only rained for a fortnight before this dry spell.

And there’s another problem: dangerous worms are feasting on the crop. Pesticides could help – but she can’t afford them. In fact, amid soaring food prices, she doesn’t even have enough money to feed her children: the price of the staple maize flour jumped more than half in just a week to an all-time high in early July. 

‘Our continent has 24% of the world’s agricultural land, and 17% of the arable. So why then are we the hungriest in the world and a net food importer?

Jane’s story reflects that of so many smallholder farmers affected by extreme weather events across Africa who are struggling to feed themselves and make an income. For them, drought is just part of the story: Jane has never been able to afford any fertiliser or certified seeds. That means even if the rains were good, it would still be a huge challenge for her to harvest enough maize to feed her family for as little as two months of the year from her small plot. 

Huge potential, impoverished reality

What’s frustrating is that farmers like Jane could be growing so much more: our continent has 24% of the world’s agricultural land, and 17% of the arable. So why then are we the hungriest in the world and a net food importer? Africa imports a third of the cereals it consumes, and 64% of the wheat, according to our analysis based on the data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). By comparison, Ukraine which has just 14% of Africa’s arable land was, before the current conflict, able to feed the continent. 

Clearly drought and climate change are part of the explanation and are big factors driving the immediate emergency. But the problems with food insecurity go deeper than that: in fact, the main decades-long structural driver of our hunger and poverty is low agricultural productivity rooted in policy failures by our African governments and international organisations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and equally in failures to invest in human capital such as education and social protection.  

The result is hunger-related statistics that could not be more disturbing. About 800 million people in Africa are facing severe or moderate food insecurity, according to the FAO. Healthy diets remain unaffordable for the low-income bracket. 282 million people were facing undernourishment in 2020, after a 47 million rise on the previous year. The impact of this on the cognitive and psychological development of children and negative economic and health impacts in their lifetime cannot be overstated. 

A long history of underinvestment and the wrong policies

Agriculture is a crucial sector for Africa as most rural communities depend on it for food and income and it employs roughly 53% of the labour force. Yet despite its enormous social and economic potential, the sector has become a poverty trap. 

A big cause of that is African governments massively underinvesting in agriculture. Commitments are made – but never realised. African Union member states committed to spend at least 10% of the government’s budget on agriculture: yet In 2021, the average spending on agriculture in Africa was just 4.1%. And whether any of this low spending even reached small-scale farmers is another question. 

And the World Bank and IMF have not helped, insisting through conditions on their lending that agricultural markets be fully liberalised, promoting export crops and cash crops over food crops. African governments have been denied policy tools that are regularly used by richer nations to support their farmers, such as subsidies or public interventions to guarantee prices.

Fertilisers: ‘so expensive for poor people’

Farming inputs especially fertilisers are pricier in Africa. Most small-scale farmers simply do not use them as they are priced beyond reach. Even those who do use them often use the wrong ones as there is no soil testing. Africa uses 24kg of fertiliser per hectare of cropland, five times less than the global average.

Jane feels the direct effect of such missing inputs. In 2021, while she harvested 180kg of maize from her 0.8ha, her neighbour, Joseph – who is a teacher and uses some fertilisers on his maize – got 2,070kg from a plot of similar size, though yields were lower than in previous years. He sold some and had enough left to feed his family for a whole year. Jane has never used any fertilisers because “they are so expensive for poor people,” she says. 

Such real-life examples show how piecemeal policy intervention and low-quality investment are impacting food security, poverty, and inequality. And because the sector is dominated by women practising small-scale farming such as Jane, women are disadvantaged disproportionately. Women perform 66% of the farm work, produce 50% of the food yet only earn 10% of the income and own 1% of the agriculture property. For developing countries, closing the gender gap in agriculture would mean women increasing their yields by up to 30% and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by up to 17%. 

The impact of climate change and conflict

Of course, climate change and conflict are also key players in hunger in Africa. Our continent contributes less than 4% to climate change but is increasingly experiencing extreme weather conditions that influence productivity. Jane’s Horn of Africa region is dealing with its worst drought in four decades. There and in West Africa, which is facing the worst food crisis in a decade, about 66 million people are staring at starvation because of drought. In Mozambique, a combination of flooding, drought and conflicts are accelerating food insecurity in the country. 

Millions of people are being denied their rights through displacement and loss of livelihoods. In 2021, there were 25.1 million internally displaced people in Sub-Saharan Africa because of conflict and violence, 47% of the global total, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. 2021 had the highest ever recorded displacements.  

So what can be done? Start with massive investment and market support

Generally, small-scale farmers in Africa are net food buyers and among the poorest people. Usage of inputs is dismal, infrastructure is lacking, extension support is minimal, financing options are inadequate and market linkages are too weak to support improved productivity.

Governments should progressively increase spending on agriculture from the current low of 4.1% of national budgets to at least 10% in every country

So, what can be done in these extraordinary times to arrest food insecurity, and reduce poverty and inequality? We suggest starting by addressing five crucial policy areas, all of which we would have liked to see on the agenda at this week’s African Union mid-year meeting:

  1. Start by transforming the agricultural and food systems through increased quantity and quality of investments, with a bias towards building the resilience of smallholder farmers. Governments should progressively increase spending on agriculture from the current low of 4.1% of national budgets to at least 10% in every country. Climate and nutritionally sensitive local food systems can significantly contribute to healthy food diets.
  2. Government should be allowed to implement policies that reduce risk for farmers and consumers, subsidising credit and inputs, guaranteeing prices, ensuring strategic reserves of food and providing appropriate agricultural extension support. A wholesale reliance on export crops and market liberalisation should be abandoned.
  3. Then invest in education, training and social protection. A report by the FAO indicates that strengthening farmers’ skills and agency through training, positive role modelling and mentorships and using approaches such as farmer field schools for learning and knowledge sharing, is central to tapping the potential of the sector. Strong social protection systems too could end food insecurity and build a strong and resilient Africa that can withstand shocks. 
  4. Raising revenue fairly and equitably through progressive taxation would raise much-needed funds to invest in agriculture and enabling sectors. To free up government resources to invest in agriculture and end hunger, Africa also needs debt cancellation and restructuring from all lenders. 
  5. Wealthier countries, the major contributors to climate change, should make available climate financing to African countries to help the continent mitigate and adapt to climate change. It is also everyone’s business to support an end to incessant conflict, political instability and polarisation in the region and elsewhere. 

With improved productivity, reckons McKinsey, a consulting firm, Africa could produce two to three times more cereals and coarse grains. For Jane, that would probably be dozens of times. We know that Jane can feed herself from her 0.8 hectares – she just needs the investment and policy mix to enable her to do it.

Author

Anthony Kamande

Anthony Kamande is inequality research coordinator at Oxfam International

Author

Dailes Judge

Dailes Judge is the Southern Africa Programme Director at Oxfam International