Africa: Continent of Plenty

Ten reasons why Africa can feed itself—and help feed the rest of the world too

16 min read
Africa: Continent of Plenty
Photo: Tony Karumba/Getty Images

Kojo Anku left a high-paying job on Wall Street last year to return to his native Ghana, not to replicate his financial career there but to launch an aquaponics farm, raising organic lettuce, tomatoes, and herbs indoors in nutrient-rich vats. That business, in central Accra, is now booming. “I feel I’m making a bigger difference in the lives of others by applying my knowledge and capital to food production,” Anku says. “Sure, my family and I are adjusting, but it’s worth it to help Ghana leapfrog to the forefront of innovative farming.”

Anku is one of tens of thousands of African émigrés who are returning home with money and skills, hoping to cash in on a farming boom that is remaking the continent. According to the World Bank, agricultural GDP in sub-Saharan African grew from 2.3 percent per year in the 1980s to 3.8 percent per year from 2000 to 2005—a jump of 65 percent.

 The most densely populated, western part of the continent has sustained such profound gains in farm output that Steven Wiggins, a leading expert on agriculture, has declared that “a green revolution is already under way.”

Some readers may find that statement incredible. And indeed the haunting images of starving Africans are so ingrained in our collective psyche that many people still cling to the notion that Africa can’t feed itself—and maybe never will.

That conclusion, however familiar, is wrong. Fewer Africans face famine now than at any time since the world began counting. While it’s true that sub-Saharan Africa as a whole still leads the world in poverty and food insecurity rates, it is also true that in Uganda in East Africa and in the 15 countries of West Africa, food production now outpaces population growth. In Ghana, for instance, farm output has jumped by 5 percent every year for the past 20 years, which helps explain why the poverty rate there has fallen by half. Even infamously food-insecure Malawi and Ethiopia now grow record amounts of crops and even export surpluses to their neighbors.

The mounting evidence of this historic reversal is impossible to ignore. Against the new reality, international food agencies that spent decades proclaiming Africa’s inevitable doom are being forced to shift their rhetoric. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the leading nongovernmental donor to African agriculture, reports that 10 African countries are posting annual output increases of 6 percent, more than twice the rate of population growth. After years of bemoaning the inadequacies of African farmers, the Gates foundation now trumpets a series about them entitled “Profiles of Progress.”

In short, African agriculture is booming. And that transformation is happening despite the fact that African farmers have a ways to go in adopting new farming technologies and methods—less than 5 percent of land in the sub-Sahara is irrigated, and use of high-quality seeds and fertilizer is minimal. So there’s a considerable upside to African agriculture. If farmers adopt proven technologies in the coming years, as many believe they will, “they will not only feed their own people but help feed the rest of the world too,” predicts Calestous Juma, an expert on technology and development who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Still not a believer? My observations here are drawn from the 40 visits I’ve made to sub-Saharan Africa since 2000. Many of those trips were made so I could understand from the ground up the new forces at work in rural Africa and in farming and agribusiness in the region. I visited scores of villages, interviewed hundreds of farmers, and made detailed observations of a single village over a period of years. I paid special attention to the rollout of new technologies, the role of urbanization in altering agro-business dynamics, and the importance of women and education in farm productivity. My field research was funded partly through writing for such journalism outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, and The Wilson Quarterly. I also received research grants from international donors with a keen interest in African agriculture, including the Gates Foundation, the International Food Policy Research Institute, Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Based on what I’ve learned and what other Africa watchers have observed and studied, here are 10 reasons why African farmers are becoming more productive, wealthier, and increasingly essential to a sustainable food economy for the entire world.

1. More Africans now live in cities

Africa is the most rapidly urbanizing region on the planet. And while it may seem counterintuitive, that’s great news for farmers. “The single biggest stimulus to most farmers is a thriving local city,” says Wiggins, who leads the agriculture program at the United Kingdom’s Overseas Development Institute.

Here’s why: Africa’s city dwellers spend roughly half their incomes on food, and as their ranks have grown—by 4 percent per year—small farmers located on the urban perimeters have responded, offering food that’s cheaper and fresher than what gets trucked in from further out. “African farmers have opportunities today that they only dreamed of in the past,” says Wiggins. “In areas within an hour or two's drive of major cities, you can already see many small-scale and some larger farmers who are taking advantage of this.”

Often located within 5 to 8 kilometers of central urban markets, these “peri-urban” farmers [PDF] typically bring their goods to market by taxi or motorcycle, striking deals in advance by text message. My wife’s mother, who lives on the outskirts of Port Harcourt, Nigeria’s major oil-producing city, grows cassava and a kind of leafy spinach in a field she leases. While she consumes some of the produce, her main source of income comes from selling what she grows. Proximity to customers means spoilage is nearly zero, and transport costs are low, leaving her enough profit to consider leasing more land in the future.

The shift to cities and towns also means there’s more rural land for the farmers who remain. As it is, Africa has the greatest amount of idle arable land on the planet. For example, the Guinea Savannah zone covers around 600 million hectares in West Africa—through Uganda and Tanzania and encompassing Malawi, Zambia, Angola, and Mozambique—which is around one-third of the total area of sub-Saharan Africa. Of this, 400 million hectares can be used for agriculture, reports the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization. However, less than 10 percent of this area is being cultivated today.

Ken Sakwa, a farmer in eastern Uganda, profitably farms a dozen plots he leases from neighbors, many of whom have left for city life. Because of the growing stability of cash crop prices, Sakwa can reliably estimate how much a field will yield, and thus what a “fair” rent should be. “Disagreements are rare,” Sakwa says, “because the owner gets a windfall for doing nothing.”

2. Farming is now cool

Farming in Africa is not only profitable, it’s become popular. Even the educated and well-off, who long shunned getting their hands dirty, now extol farming as a path to prosperity. Nigeria’s former president Olusegun Obasanjo has campaigned for progressive farming practices, and he walks the walk by operating his own chicken farms. In Uganda, former vice president Gilbert Bukenya has promoted cattle ownership and small-scale production of cash crops that can quickly and easily be sold in urban markets.

The flood of well-educated people going into farming has sped up the absorption of new technology across the board. Kojo Anku, the aquaponics farmer in Accra, says his yields of organic vegetables and herbs are up to eight times those of traditional farms, and the plants grow faster. More rapid maturation in turn means a faster turnaround on his investment. And at city markets, his produce commands about the same prices as it would in developed countries. “We can pursue the best interest of people and profits at the same time,” Anku says.

Multinational agribusinesses see similar opportunities in Africa, albeit on a grand scale, and have been buying up land in recent years, attracted by prices that may seem ultralow by global standards. One buyer, Emergent Asset Management of London, calculates the price of African farmland at about one-seventh that of land in the United States or Brazil. “That alone is an arbitrage opportunity,” Susan Payne, Emergent’s former chief executive officer and now executive chairman of EmVest, an investment fund focused on agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. “We could be moronic and not grow anything” and still make money, she says.

That African “farmland rush” has in turn ignited fears that Africans may end up farming only for export—and, worse, suffer hunger as a result. But this scenario has two problems. First, the existing foreign-owned plantations in Africa have tended to under-perform small-scale family farms on a per-acre basis, partly because of the relatively high costs of mechanized farming and farm labor. And second, it ignores the fact that much of the available farmland in Africa still consists of small farms that are owned by the families who farm them. No less an authority on peasants than Cuba’s Che Guevara noted the same phenomenon nearly a half century ago when he traveled in the Congo, attempting to foment rebellion: Almost every African family he met owned a plot of farmland—a radically different situation than in Latin America, where landless families were (and remain) typical. And so the new demand for African land raises the value of everyone’s farmland, and would-be foreign investors frequently encounter difficulties assembling large tracts of land.

“I’d rather work my own land than a company’s land,” says John Baird, a small farmer in Malawi who often turns down work on a nearby tobacco plantation in favor of his own plot. That sentiment is widespread. Many investors end up buying land in sparsely populated parts of Africa, such as Mozambique and Zambia, where of course they then struggle to attract farm labor. And so true plantation-style farming remains rare in Africa.

Even when labor is plentiful, there’s no guarantee of success. India’s Emami Biotech had grand plans to open a US $80 million biofuel plantation in Ethiopia, only to cancel the project after struggling with local officials for more than a year.

There is one highly successful foreign agricultural model, however: roses. Greenhouse operations, packed with Dutch and Israeli technology, have taken root in Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Tens of thousands of workers carefully harvest the flowers, package them into attractive bouquets, and then bar-code them, before they’re flown to Europe and the United States. Growers can afford to pay relatively high wages because their products command high prices internationally. Even this relatively mature sector, however, is evolving to allow more small-scale flower growers to participate. In Kenya, Wilmar Agro Limited acts as an intermediary for more than 2000 small flower farmers, whose goods it then sells at Dutch flower auctions.

3. International demand for Africa’s crops is soaring

Global prices for African cocoa, cotton, and even green beans are at or near historic highs. Cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, commands double what it did in the 1990s, which means the farmers in Ghana who grow it are together collecting $2 billion annually. Europe’s surging demand for fresh vegetables and cut flowers has been a windfall for African farmers. Even ordinary staples, such as maize, have risen markedly in price.

High prices have boosted the living standard of millions of African farmers, especially the most enterprising, well-organized ones. High prices also increase the cost of living, of course, but because a higher percentage of Africans farm than any other people anywhere else in the world, high prices help most Africans more than they hurt. What’s more, they boost the incentive to farm and have fostered a growing class of “superfarmers.” In Zambia, for instance, one in five cotton farmers and one in 20 vegetable farmers have now achieved “commercial success [PDF],” reports Steven Haggblade of Michigan State University and his colleagues. For these superfarmers, success means they have enough cash to pay for school fees, medical expenses, and the like and also to invest in expanding and improving their farms.

4. The “lost crops” of Africa have been rediscovered

Long ignored, Africa’s “forgotten” crops, including cassava, sunflower seeds, and cowpeas, have in the last two decades rapidly expanded in production, bringing unexpected benefits. “Outsiders often miss the real action in African agriculture by ignoring important staples that are grown in the region but not well-known elsewhere,” says Calestous Juma, of Harvard.

Consider cassava, a protein-rich root that in Latin America goes by the name manioc or tapioca and whose heartiness has earned it the nickname “the Rambo of crops.” In Nigeria alone, output tripled from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s to reach 45 million metric tons per year, according to figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Each additional million metric ton is enough to meet the cassava needs of 22 million Africans.

One reason for the cassava miracle has been the ongoing breeding of improved varieties that are more resistant to disease, pest, and drought. Another is the development of more sophisticated postharvest handling that reduces spoilage. Dried cassava is increasingly being turned into an easily stored flour, called gari in West Africa, that is convenient to cook and bake with and wildly popular.

Experts expect even greater expansion through improved technology. The Gates foundation is funding tens of millions of dollars of cassava-related research. One project, led by the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, in St. Louis, is genetically engineering the vegetable to contain more iron and beta-carotene. Another effort, based at Cornell University, aims to raise cassava productivity through genome-based breeding, looking at the variations in the plant’s DNA to more quickly identify those strains and traits with the potential to boost yields. In both cases, the participation of African researchers and institutions is ensuring that these are not simply one-way transfers of knowledge.

Cowpeas—a nutritious crop known as black-eyed peas in the American south—also show how much can be done with even basic technology. Weevil infestations caused postharvest losses as high as 50 percent until Purdue University researchers discovered that storing the cowpeas in airtight containers could preserve the crop for up to a year. They devised the Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage (PICS) bag, made from two inner high-density-polyethylene plastic bags and an outer nylon sack. Now sold in 10 African countries for about $2 each, the rugged bags provide an airtight seal for long-term, pest-free storage. The Gates Foundation estimates that by using them, 1.7 million cowpea farmers in West and Central Africa will increase their annual incomes by an average of $150 [PDF]—a significant increase in a region where most farmers live on about $2 per day.

5. Information technology is boosting farmers’ profits

Go to any African market in even the tiniest village and you’ll see farmers busily text-messaging on their cellphones. By linking buyers and sellers, and making it easier to disseminate important information like market prices and better planting and harvesting techniques, information technology is greatly enhancing farmer productivity and allowing coordination at an unprecedented scale.

Food brokers, for instance, can aggregate the efforts of small holders quickly and inexpensively; what’s more, much of the software they use to do that is designed by and for African programmers. Multinational food broker VP Group regularly buys from about 5000 small farms near Nairobi. Thanks to text messages and the mobile Internet, it can now collect produce from the field, package it, and send it to Nairobi’s airport in a single day. And because farmers still control and work their own land, they dramatically benefit when prices and output rise.

In the mid-2000s, Uganda’s largest cooking oil company, the Mukwano Group, rapidly enlisted 100 000 small farmers to grow sunflower seeds by using text messaging and mobile-phone “trees” to explain everything from when to plant and weed to where and when to deliver the harvested crops. In the last decade, sunflower seed production has more than tripled.

Farm radio” is another vital channel for agricultural innovation. Government-run extension services in Africa tend to do a poor job of educating farmers, but radio—more popular than television in Africa—delivers basic information about how to choose crops, find improved seeds, boost yields, and identify buyers. One project, working through partner radio stations in Tanzania, Uganda, Ghana, Mali, and Malawi, has reached an estimated 40 million listeners.

6. African farms use the least amount of modern technology in the world, so any uptick in usage could lead to enormous gains

Two of the most important technologies in farming are irrigation and fertilizers, and yet both are largely absent in Africa. Cost is the major reason. In much of the sub-Sahara, fertilizer costs two to three times more than it does anywhere else in the world, largely because of the shipping costs of imported ingredients. Irrigation schemes, meanwhile, require government support, which has until now been virtually absent. Once these two proven techniques become more widespread, as they have nearly everywhere else, African farm productivity will soar.

In the Millennium Villages demonstration project sponsored by the United Nations, for instance, farmers in central Malawi who had previously relied on rain to water their crops learned the benefits of spooning water directly onto their plants. In the absence of fixed irrigation, such low-cost, improvised irrigation methods are gaining ground and helping to improve yields.

What about more advanced technology? For years African governments opposed the genetic modification of crops, but recently some have backtracked and now promote its adoption, starting with a nonfood crop—cotton. Whether African farmers can grow GM crops—as American farmers do on a massive scale—remains “mired in controversy,” according to an authoritative study of the subject by Amy Orr and Sakiko Fukuda-Parr [PDF]. European opposition to GM food remains high, and U.S. donors, such as the Gates Foundation, have been reluctant to promote the bioengineering of African crops. Yet because such crops require less water, fertilizer, and pesticides and reap higher yields, African farmers are interested.

The case of cotton in Burkina Faso highlights biotechnology’s potential. Breaking ranks with other governments in the region, Burkina approved genetically modified cotton several years ago, and by 2011 about half of the cotton grown in this West African country was bioengineered. Yields went up, spending on pesticides and fertilizer went down, and total income roughly doubled. Even if cotton remains the only GM crop in Africa, the benefit to farmers could still be huge. Most African cotton farmers grow other crops, sometimes planting them between rows of cotton. So if they can spend less to grow more and better cotton, these other crops should benefit, too.

7. Government support for food producers is getting better

Everyone agrees that African farmers remain heavily inhibited by poor governance. Farm extension services are notoriously inefficient. Irrigation schemes are practically nonexistent. Transport links are terrible; where proper roads do exist, you’ll often see police roadblocks capriciously set up to extract bribes from drivers. Rather than support their own producers, many African governments ease the importation of foreign-grown food. In Ghana, for instance, canned tomato paste from Italy, frozen chickens from Brazil, and rice from Thailand can be sold below cost, killing local production. The Italian, Brazilian, and Thai governments subsidize those goods, so their farmers don’t lose out; it’s the Africa growers who suffer.

Trade in foodstuffs between neighboring African countries is often hampered by misguided government rules. In Tanzania, ham-handed bans on exports of some staples have resulted in food rotting in the fields.

But government aid to farmers is improving. Kenya’s support for small dairy farms is an encouraging example. Kenya’s cows are the top milk producers in Africa, giving 4 billion liters of milk a year, nearly all of it consumed domestically (at 145 liters per person annually). Fifteen years ago, the government pushed through reforms in the processing and marketing of milk that boosted farmers’ profits, then reinforced those gains by funding research into hardier, higher-output cow breeds.

A parallel success occurred with cassava. Starting in the 1970s, researchers in Nigeria successfully bred varieties of cassava that are more resistant to pests and disease, mature faster, and are lower in cyanide. Now Nigeria is the world’s top producer of cassava. Felix Nweke, an international cassava expert, has described the transformation as “an important scientific success story.”

Targeted subsidies to farmers, which have long been accepted in Europe, the United States, and parts of Asia, are also becoming more common in Africa, thereby raising farmer incomes and output. In Malawi, the government’s decision in 2005 to give maize farmers fertilizer and hybrid seeds at a steep discount resulted in record harvests. The country quickly went from shortage to surplus; its farmers now sell excess corn to neighboring Zimbabwe.

To be sure, government remains the source of frustrating, even mind-boggling, difficulties. Such massive incompetence, however, provides fuel for reformers. In highly fertile Uganda, where ample rains permit three growing seasons annually, the government has encouraged exports to neighboring Kenya, Rwanda, and South Sudan, where local shortages of food can be severe and frequent. With more customers now within easier reach, Ugandan farmers have opened up idle land, expanded production of corn and other staples—and been rewarded by bumper earnings. “Uganda is now a food basket for East Africa,” stated the October 2012 World Bank report “Africa Can Feed Africa.”

8. Women are getting better educated, and that will lead to better farm outcomes

In sub-Saharan Africa, improvements in the education and status of women make them better farmers—which matters, because women produce up to 80 percent of the region’s food. At urban markets, legions of “market women” buy food wholesale and then peddle it retail, some amassing tidy fortunes through their efforts. On the farm, women increasingly are granted the power to profit from their direct labor.

Jessica Sakwa and her husband, Ken, run a peanut and cowpea farm in eastern Uganda. She gets to keep the money she earns from her fields, and she even maintains her own ledger in which she records expenses and sales. “I see the difference in her commitment,” says Ken, who agreed to this arrangement shortly after he married Jessica about 10 years ago. The couple compete in a friendly way over who manages their fields more efficiently. “I encourage women in my village to make similar arrangements with their husbands,” Jessica says.

9. Climate change has an upside

Harsher environments will force African farmers (and their counterparts around the world) to work smarter and make long-term investments that they should be making anyway. In staving off doom, they will actually be building a more sustainable future.

Wishful thinking? Consider the striking evidence of “regreening” in the Sahel region, where the savanna grasslands of West Africa meet the Sahara desert. Chris Reij, a sustainable land management specialist at VU University Amsterdam, has studied reforestation efforts there, which were accomplished using simple technologies to combat desertification. He describes such efforts by farmers in parched Niger as “the biggest environmental transformation in Africa.”

Satellite photographs attest to the success, recording blocks of green that once were brown and gray. To do that, farmers dug crescent-shaped ditches and erected low fences out of stones, deadwood, and brush to catch drifting soil. These keep the dirt stationary long enough for it to catch water and insects, germinate seeds, and allow farmers to add manure. Near-desert plots are gradually transformed into small, narrow fields in which the farmers then plant trees. And in the shadows cast by the trees, they grow fruits and vegetables.

Greening projects are also succeeding in Mali, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. Reij argues that these limited successes can spread to other “drylands” in Africa. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has caught the spirit, introducing a worldwide campaign around “climate-smart agriculture.”

Climate change can also be managed by greater reliance on drought-tolerant crops. Here, hearty cassava is a natural choice. Indeed, hotter temperatures and and less rain may actually result in higher cassava yields, according to climate scientist Andy Jarvis, lead author of a 2012 paper in the journal Tropical Plant Biology. Jarvis and fellow researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, headquartered near Cali, Colombia, found that cassava outperformed potatoes, maize, beans, bananas, millet, and sorghum in tests of 24 climate-prediction and crop-suitability models.

The best hedge against potential food shortages created by climate change? Bringing Africa’s hundreds of millions of hectares of fertile unused farmland into production.

10. Africa has done it before and can do it again

After World War II, a starving Europe, its farms ruined by the most destructive conflict in human history, leaned heavily on growers south of the Sahara. Wheat from Kenya, maize from Zimbabwe, and fruits and vegetables from western and southern Africa adorned European tables. African farmers prospered, and by the early 1960s, they supplied 8 percent of the world’s tradable food.

Although that figure stands at less than 2 percent today, many African agricultural experts believe, as Harvard’s Calestous Juma has stated, that “history can repeat itself.”

Already, evidence is overwhelming that farming in Africa, if less productive than other places, has entered a bountiful new phase. And a recent World Bank report entitled “Growing Africa” argues that African agribusiness could be a trillion-dollar market by 2030—triple what it is today—provided farmers gain access to things like capital, electricity, and irrigation.

A remaining challenge is the equitable distribution of food. Part of the solution lies in improved links between African countries whose postcolonial borders often don’t make geographic sense and place artificial barriers between areas of surplus food production and areas of deficit. In a recent paper, Steven Haggblade identifies “breadbasket” regions that routinely produce food surpluses and finds that most are close to areas that must import food. Kenya, for instance, leads East Africa in dairy and wheat production, while neighboring Uganda produces surpluses of maize and other staples; yet parts of western and northern Kenya face a chronic struggle for food. What Africa needs most—and is increasingly getting, Haggblade reports—is more commerce between the food-rich and the food-poor.

To be sure, hunger remains a specter in Africa for a small but significant minority of people. There continue to be hunger seasons and hunger zones. But for many Africans, the experience of hunger is shifting—and in the right direction.

Hunger once afflicted much of Malawi as recently as 10 years ago. When I first visited the Baird family in 2006, in the central part of the country, their struggle to provide enough food was heart-wrenching. And their situation was all the more dire because the Bairds had lost two sons to AIDS—sons who had previously helped to support their parents and sister. I was there when Mrs. Baird became disconsolate at discovering that rats had broken into the family’s sole remaining bag of corn.

And yet collective action has now largely ended Malawi’s seasonal food shortages. The government began giving farm families such as the Bairds a discount on the purchase of fertilizer and hybrid seeds, and production of maize soared. Skeptics of farm subsidies must at least accept that Malawi has only followed the U.S. and European example of rewarding farmers with aid.

How sustainable is the farm boom in Africa? How wide and deep will its effects be felt? Rapid population growth alone means that feeding the sub-Sahara’s nearly 900 million people will remain an ever-evolving task. But the task, it should now be realized, is subject to the principles of engineering. And for the first time in a half century, the question is no longer whether sub-Saharan Africa can produce enough food to feed its people. It can—and can feed some of the rest of the world too.

A condensed version of this article appeared as "Africa’s Food Solution."

About the Author

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor at Arizona State University. His extensive reporting in sub-Saharan Africa since 2000 has led to articles in Fortune, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Wilson Quarterly, as well as two books, most recently Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape (CreateSpace, 2012).

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