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Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Report: Sub-Saharan Africa Soon Won't Be Able to Feed Itself


Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to keep growing. The region is now home to a little under a billion people. But it is projected to grow to over 2 billion, or 22 percent of the world’s population, by 2050. By 2080, experts say it will be the only world region with a still growing population.

With that projected population growth comes an increased demand for grains, among other resources. Can the region meet that increased demand?

Researchers looked at 10 sub-Saharan countries -- Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia -- and considered whether they could handle the projected demand for five staple grains (maize, wheat, rice, sorghum and millet). Those 10 countries account for 54 percent of the 2010 population and 58 percent of the 2010 arable land area in the region.

The researchers published their findings as a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). What they found is that sub-Saharan Africa is “the region at greatest food security risk,” because its population is expected to grow 2.5 times by 2050.

Demand for grains is expected to triple, and the region currently relies heavily on grain imports, the researchers concluded. Without expanding grain crops, they say, the region will become even more dependent on imports for its food. 

Sub-Saharan Africa’s self-sufficiency ratio in staple grains is just above 0.80 today. It is one of the sub-continents with the lowest grain self-sufficiency ratio while also having the greatest projected population increase.

Grains have a central food security role in the region as they account for around half of caloric intake and total crop area. Population growth accounts for about 75 percent of the projected increase in demand and is “much more more important than per capita increase in demand due to dietary changes,” the research team found.

Sub-Saharan Africa must accelerate grain production

There is some positive news in the report. It is possible to achieve “accelerated rates of yield gain” in Ethiopia and several other sub-Saharan countries with “improved cultivars, hybrids, and seed, coupled with increased use of fertilizers, modern pest management practices, and good agronomy,” the researchers found.

To increase the intensification of grain crops, they say a “greater investment” in research and development (R&D) will be needed. And it is needed now and “even more so under future climate change.” In addition to R&D investments, they insist supportive policies and public finance for “improved transport and communication, market infrastructure, credit, insurance, and improved land entitlements” are needed.

All told, the 10 countries included in the study must increase grain yields by more than 80 percent to realize self-sufficiency. In order to achieve that, the researchers say countries must increase cropping intensity and expand irrigated production areas in regions that can support it. “Failure to achieve these intensification options will result in increasing dependence on cereal imports and vast expansion of rain-fed cropland area,” they warned.

African agriculture as a whole is “in urgent need of an upgrade and fast-track into 21st century productivity,” Adam Elhiraika, director of the macroeconomic policy division at the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), said during a 2015 workshop

And that is no more true than in the sub-Saharan region. According to the nonprofit organization Change of the Better, the region includes “large, unused tracts of land” that have the “potential to significantly increase yields, as well as a young and growing population, offer glimmers of hope.”

Change for the Better says increasing water-storage capacity is essential, as over 90 percent of sub-Saharan agriculture is rain-fed. The organization also recommends the introduction of crop diversification and insurance systems.

"It's achievable, but we have to break the complacency that we can continue with business as usual ... (and) still feed ourselves," Kindie Tesfaye, co-author of the report and a scientist with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Addis Ababa, told CNBC Africa.
"If intensification is not successful and massive cropland expansion is to be avoided, sub-Saharan Africa will become ever more dependent on imports of cereals than it is today," he said.

Image credit: Flickr/erfan a. setiawan

Gina-Marie Cheeseman headshot

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.

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