Africa Can Feed Just 40% of its Population in 2025

Soil Infertility, Malnutrition at Root of Half of African Child Deaths Today; Needed to Bring Land Toward Full Food Potential: $100 – $500 million per country.

[sws_white_box box_size=”675″]

Uzo Mokwunye, Director, UN University Institute for Natural Resources in Africa, and Moctar Toure, Executive Secretary, World Bank Special Program for African Agricultural Research, will be available for interviews at The World Bank, 1818 H Street, N.W., Washington, DC on Thursday, October 14 and Friday, October 15. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule a time.


The continuing degradation of African soils threatens the world’s fastest-growing region with starvation and poverty on an unprecedented scale within 25 years, warns a United Nations analysis.Unless action is stepped up, the 48 African nations and territories south of the Sahara — home today to more than 550 million people — will produce enough food for just 40% of the projected one billion inhabitants in 2025, according to the analysis, released for UN World Food Day, October 16.

“The low fertility of African soils is the single most critical impediment to the region’s economic development,” said Hans van Ginkel, UN Under Secretary-General and Rector of the UN University (UNU). “We cannot begin to make real progress in the battle against poverty and malnutrition in Africa until the problem of degraded soils is addressed.”

The top four causes of African soil degradation are:

  • Overgrazing: decreases vegetative cover and tramples soil.
  • Inefficient agricultural activities: ineffective use of fertilizers; cultivation on steep slopes or in arid areas without proper anti-erosion measures; improper irrigation; use of heavy machinery on soils with weak structural stability.
  • Overexploitation: removal of vegetation for domestic needs; overuse of existing agricultural land for agriculture.
  • Deforestation/vegetation removal: loss of vegetative cover through clearing, logging or development.

Poor land management results in water erosion (responsible for 46% of soil losses), wind erosion (38%), improper chemical use (12%) and soil compaction due to overgrazing (4%).
Potential sources of soil nutrient replenishment such as crop residues and animal manure are increasingly used as livestock fodder and household fuel. Meanwhile, many soil fertility maintenance practices — such as allowing land to lie fallow and inter-cropping cereals with legumes and mixed crop / livestock farming — have broken down due to the desperate demand for arable land of a growing population.

While farm yields have risen elsewhere worldwide, sub-Saharan Africa represents the last remaining region facing widespread food shortages caused by deteriorating soil conditions and decreasing food production per capita. In the past 30 years, the number of chronically malnourished people in the region has doubled to 200 million.

“The consequences of Africa’s worsening crisis include further economic decline, widespread environmental destruction, mass migration, social disruption, and escalating internal and cross-border conflict,” said Uzo Mokwunye, Director of the Ghana-based UNU Institute for Natural Resources in Africa (INRA). The crisis is only compounded by the fact that the African population has increased dramatically over the last 25 years and will continue to increase over the next 25 years.

Direct links have already been drawn between agricultural dependence and 14 African wars (conflicts resulting in more than 1,000 casualties) between 1989 and 1997, with women and children constituting most casualties. Subsistence-related conflicts also represent huge costs to other countries. The UN estimates donor nations spend $10 billion per year on international peacekeeping and emergency humanitarian aid.

Several statistics characterize the population growth and soil degradation paradigm crisis in Africa:

  • In sub-Saharan Africa, an area six times the size of France is classified as degraded — representing about 72% of arable land and 31% of pastureland;
  • Arable land per capita declined 24.5% in Africa between 1980 and 1993, 1.3 times the global average of 18%;
  • Africans consume 20% less food in absolute terms than they did in the 1950s, a period when the region was a net exporter of food;
  • Per capita cereal production in Africa, which averaged 144 kilos in 1970, dropped 9% to 132 kilos by 1997. In that time, it increased 48% in China, 14% in India, 39% in the USA and, on average, 12% worldwide;
  • Average African farm yields for important cereals (maize, rice, sorghum and wheat) lag far behind other regions — 1.3 tons per hectare, compared with 4.8 in China, 2.2 in India, 5.7 in the USA, and 3.0 worldwide;
  • An estimated 30% of African children today suffer malnutrition, which stunts body size and reduces work capacity and performance. Malnutrition damage to the immune system underlies more than half of deaths among developing country children, often from common ailments like measles and diarrhea. Diarrhea and dehydration alone kill about 800,000 African children per year.

Africa has large food growing potential

“If its food production potential is met, Africa could again be a net food exporter,” said Dr. Mokwunye.

The UN estimates that implementing National Action Plans to improve African soil fertility and move towards full food production potential in the region would require an investment of at least $100 to $500 million per country per year over 10 years.

The World Bank’s investment alone in African agriculture has averaged $182 million in the 1990s; it is investing $250 million this year.

The World Bank is expected to increase its investment in Africa by $2 billion over the next 15 years, with $240 to $360 million in 2000-2004 to help 12 African countries implement new soil fertility National Action Plans, another $650 million in 2005-2009 to provide assistance in 20 countries, and a further $1 billion in 2010-2014 to aid all 48 sub-Saharan countries.

Soil nutrient loss

While soil quality varies widely in Africa, most was formed from very old, weathered and leached rocks and is inherently low in nutrients. The soil fertility crisis is deepened each year by “nutrient mining” — nutrients removed in harvested produce and lost through leaching or other means.

Crops harvested over the past 30 years have drawn down much of the soil’s nutrient content. Nutrient levels have dropped dramatically over an estimated 1 million square kilometers of cultivated land: nitrogen down 660 kilos per hectare, phosphorus 75 kilos, and potassium 450 kilos.

By contrast, North American farms dramatically increased average nutrient capital per hectare in that period: nitrogen up 2,000 kilos, phosphorus 700 kilos, and potassium 1,000 kilos.

Many countries where average annual nutrient losses are greatest are also those with the highest rates of malnutrition. Ethiopia, for example, annually loses an average estimated 47 kilos of nitrogen, 15 kilos of phosphorus and 38 kilos of potassium. The equivalent figures for Nigeria are 37, 9 and 37, and for Tanzania 32, 12 and 25. National statistics on underweight children under five: Ethiopia, 48%, Nigeria, 36%, Tanzania, 29%;

Soil depletion leads to other problems

Many African farmers respond to declining productivity by abandoning degraded pasture and cropland and moving to new lands. It is cheaper to bring new land into production than to maintain or improve land already cultivated.

Migration is increasing as a survival strategy for Africa’s rural poor, putting great pressures on the environment and natural resources of the new settlement areas and contributing to the growing urbanization problems. In fact, urbanization has become one of the most conspicuous consequences of Africa’s agricultural decline.

The cycle of soil degradation, followed by expansion of agriculture into new but marginal land, contributes to many other problems as well. It is a major cause of deforestation and contributes to desertification and the loss of biodiversity, for example.

It also contributes to global climate change, since diverse populations of soil microorganisms constitute one of the planet’s largest sinks for atmospheric carbon. Poor soils produce small populations of microorganisms, which absorb less carbon. Also, disturbing soils to develop new agricultural areas results in large fluxes of carbon to the atmosphere.

Fertilizers offer only a partial solution

In the last 10 years, consumption of mineral fertilizers (often unavailable or too expensive for African farmers) increased annually by only 0.6% in Africa, compared with an increase of 4.4% in all other developing regions.

Just halting nutrient loss would require average fertilizer applications in Africa to rise from 10 to 50 kilos per hectare. Even with this five-fold increase, however, African fertilizer application levels would fall well short of those in India (70 kg/ha) and pale compared with China (260 kg/ha).

Nor would they alone solve the problem of reduced food production. A mix of other activities is required, including so-called “low-input” technologies based on the use of manure and organic materials, the exploitation and use of local phosphorus deposits to improve levels of that soil nutrient, investments to prevent soil erosion, and improving water supplies through rainwater harvesting and other such techniques.

Increasing African food production will also require adapting and/or developing new technologies because agricultural technologies developed for temperate climate countries may be inappropriate for African conditions.

“Above all, there has to be a more meaningful partnership between scientists, farmers and development agencies,” said Moctar Toure, World Bank Executive Secretary, Special Program for African Agricultural Research. “This partnership is needed to promote education, research and training involving all stakeholders, but especially the farmers themselves.”

“Every dollar of international assistance spent on emergency food supplies in the region diverts resources from the building of infrastructure and institutional capacity needed to ensure long-term food security.”

Improving agriculture, reducing poverty

In 1993, 40% of Africans lived on less than $1 a day. Extreme poverty, receding in most other parts of the world, is on the rise in Africa.

Coming to grips with Africa’s agricultural and food problems is fundamental to reliving this desperate poverty. The World Bank calculates that Africa’s economies need to grow at an annual 6 to 7% to reduce the number of poor by 2% a year. Because agriculture is such an important component of national Gross Domestic Product in Africa (30 to 35 per cent on average), obtaining an overall growth rate of 6 to 7% requires agricultural sector growth of 4 to 5%. Actual growth has remained at about 2% since 1965.

Said Dr. Mokwunye: “Agriculture is the economic engine of growth of most African countries. The fact that the latest Human Development Index showed Africa at 0.46 compared with 0.64 for all developing countries testifies to the dismal state of the region’s agricultural situation.”


UNU/INRA works with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Bank and other partners in the Soil Fertility Initiative for Africa, helping governments develop and implement National Action Plans to restore and maintain soil fertility.

UNU/INRA assists the preparation of these plans by providing training and facilitating research by national scientists and technologists.

The Soil Fertility Initiative has sown one of the many needed seeds of change.
Under the Soil Fertility Initiative, work is underway to:

  • Disseminate appropriate technologies for organic and inorganic fertilizers, erosion control and water management;
  • Create economic valuation of soil fertility’s benefits;
  • Correct deficiencies in local input markets and distribution mechanisms;
  • Identify product markets and transport channels; and
  • Promote policy reform to encourage more efficient distribution of costs between private and public sectors and to provide appropriate incentives.
  • “Most importantly, the Soil Fertility Initiative is adding to a growing awareness of the real nature and seriousness of the soil fertility problem among international institutions, government policy makers and the farmers themselves,” said Dr. Mokwunye.

    “Africa may never again be the net food exporter as it was in the 1950s. However, it is clear that a combination of modern science and technology with economic and social reform will enable Africa to fully exploit the potential of its abundant natural resources. This is the ultimate solution to food insecurity.”

    UNU/INRA is working to raise $15 million to build needed infrastructure in Africa to improve scientific research and training. It is also promoting an endowment fund to provide $2 million in annual support for research and education/training in African universities and other institutions.

    Category: Press Release
    Client: ,