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Hungry Africa

Ludgar Schadomsky / jlwMarch 28, 2013

Africa frequently experiences food shortages, although its 900 million farmers could feed the continent, as well as supplying other parts of the world. But for this to happen they need the support of politicians.

Burkina Faso fruit farmer Mando Adayo
Image: DW/P. Hille

The good news first: African governments, donors and the United Nations have rediscovered Africa's agricultural sector. For almost two decades they concentrated on urban industrialization. Agriculture was insignificant.

Politicians only woke up following fluctuations on raw materials markets, coupled with a severe food crisis that began in 2008 and subsequent famine-driven rebellions. As a result the German Development Aid Ministry drew up strategy papers outlining a development policy that put the spotlight on agriculture. In Africa some 900 million people, that's 90 percent of the total population, work in the agricultural sector. It may not be a perfect comparison but who in Germany would come up with the absurd idea of halting the activities of small and medium-scale handicraft businesses which guarantee millions of jobs and are a major factor in the country's economy?

What can Africa's agricultural sector achieve?

A fruit and vegetable market in Burkina Faso
A fruit and vegetable market in Burkina FasoImage: DW/P. Hille

Agriculture means life. Every year one in eight people of the world's population doesn't have enough to eat, most of those going hungry live in South Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. These figures are alarming. In its multimedia special "Can Africa satisfy its hunger?" DW looks at the opportunities of African agriculture and the challenges it faces. Can Africa feed itself, and then at some point in the future even provide food for a rapidly growing world? More specifically, can Africa in the medium-term feed itself and then become a food exporter? Our research in East and West Africa and in chemical laboratories in Germany suggests this is possible if local politicians and foreign donors work together.

No incentives for investment

But here comes the bad news. In many African countries, commitment to farming is no more than lip-service. Conditions are lacking for farmers which would make it possible for them not only to fulfil their own needs but also to produce a surplus. Take Ethiopia for example: nearly 85 percent of the country's some 90 million people live from the land. But Ethiopia's authoritarian government, in a display of Marxist nostalgia, still bans private land ownership

Land leases are also not clearly worded. There is little incentive for farmers to invest in small plots of land which they then have to protect from erosion. Instead they use expensive packets of seeds along with pesticides and herbicides, which cause the soil to deteriorate, trapping the farmers in a vicious cycle of poverty. When harvests are lost, debts increase.

Commercial African banks do not give loans to farmers who are then unable to replace old wooden ploughs with modern equipment that would increase their harvest many times over. Even in the 21st century many farmers are denied adequate access to markets, roads to the nearest marketplace are impassable in the rainy season. Studies show that up to 50 percent of African farmers' fresh produce rots on the way to market – a totally unacceptable figure. And so the list goes on.

A cabbage plantation in South Africa
A cabbage plantation in South AfricaImage: picture alliance/WILDLIFE

Industrialization in Africa needs agriculture

The DW reporters' investigations show that little is needed to increase the productivity of farmers and boost crop yields. Drip irrigation, crop rotation, seed refinement and organic cultivation are just a few keywords.

To avoid misunderstandings: this is not about playing industrialization off against agriculture. Both are equally important. Industrialization in Africa must be vigorously promoted to ensure, for example, that Ivorian cocoa beans are processed in Abidjan rather than Hamburg. At the same time African countries and their donors must meet to agree on a partnership for Africa's food productivity.

Cocoa crop in Ivory coast
Cocoa crop in Ivory CoastImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

The chances for this are good. After the uprising in Tunisia in 2011 that first ousted politicians, then swept the winds of change across North Africa and the Arab world, Africa's decision makers have been warned. Hunger has become a political tool of the masses. Europe's politicians have seen in refugee camps on Lampedusa and Malta the desperation that hunger in Africa can trigger. The time has come for a new deal for African agriculture.