Africa. This one word is sufficient to evoke images of a doomed people. Africa’s population is largely ill-insured against external shocks brought about by natural disasters, adverse climate, war and conflict. It is here too that the ravages of the aids pandemic have been most felt. Indeed, the region is plagued by many problems which hurt its ability to ensure food and nutrition security for its people. The situation seems to repeat itself year in, year out. Yet not all is bad in Africa: it is probably the most bountiful continent in terms of natural resources.
Africa boasts vast arable land, wildlife, the highest equatorial mountains and tropical rainforests in the world, despite possessing some of the world’s driest deserts. Since the 1970s, the environment and key natural resources in most African countries were increasingly threatened by escalating pressure from fast growing populations and cities, as well as expanding agricultural and industrial activities, until the emergence of HIV/AIDS, which retarded development considerably.1,2 Politics have also done a great disservice to the continent, with a number of countries experiencing forced leadership that goes against the tenets of sound democratic principle.
There are several factors that have been identified as constraints to food production in Africa. These include land degradation, mismanagement of available water resources, pests and diseases, inappropriate food production and storage practices, inadequate food processing technologies, civil conflicts and wars, poor economic policies to support food production, as well as the low economic and social status of women, who constitute the majority of food producers.3,4 These factors have resulted in a steadily declining food security, which in turn has led to a doubling of those undernourished in Africa, from 100 million in the late 1960s to 200 million in 1995. It is projected that the region will be unable to feed 60 per cent of its population by 2025.2,3 The African population, estimated at 118 million at the turn of the twentieth century, had risen to 788.5 million in 1997 and is projected to be 1.5 billion by 2025.4,5 The fast increase is not so much a problem as is the failure for the region’s economic growth to match population growth. After all, Africa’s vast agricultural potential and huge natural resource-base are still largely untapped.
Urbanization has been one of the most notable developments of the twentieth century. In Africa, 5 per cent of the population lived in urban areas at the beginning of the last century, but this figure had grown to 20 per cent by the 1960s and 35 per cent in the 1990s. At 4 per cent, Africa’s annual urban growth rate is the highest in the world. It has been established that most of the growth in the global population is taking place in developing countries. In addition, most of the projected increase of 1 billion people between 1995 and 2010 will likely be absorbed by cities in these countries. Needless to say, these cities are already faced with enormous backlogs in housing and infrastructure development. Housing is both poor and inadequate, hence the mush-rooming of slums. It is these same cities that are also struggling with increasingly overcrowded transport systems, insufficient water supplies, deteriorating sanitation and rising food insecurity.4, 6-9
Poverty in rural areas continues to drive many to urban districts in search of better livelihoods. Rural economies, which greatly depend on agriculture, have largely been destroyed by land degradation and deprived of human labour, as the young and able-bodied leave for the cities in search of jobs. Farmers continue to farm without the use of inputs, thus realizing very low yields. Political instability has also greatly disrupted economic activities, further contributing to poverty. In addition, there is an inequitable distribution of wealth, with a small percentage of people owning the bulk of resources, while the majority continue to wallow in poverty.4
Although one can see that Africa’s problems are enormous, there are many opportunities to improve conditions for the majority of the suffering poor. There are trouble-free spots on the continent, but unfortunately these are rarely heard of, as many ob-servers tend to erroneously treat Africa as one block.
POVERTY AND HUNGER: A CYCLICAL RELATIONSHIP
Hunger in Africa can be “hidden”, as well as chronic. The number of people living with hunger, estimated at 180 million on the continent, is high and continues to escalate,10 yet is still less than the latest World Bank figures.
Food security is all about human dignity and supports enjoyment of life.11 Freedom from hunger has been described as a fundamental human right, and this explains why elimination of hunger is one of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In fact, attaining this goal will go a long way in facilitating the achievement of the other MDGs and may also reduce cultural war and conflict.12, 13
Poverty remains one of the most significant causes of hunger in Africa. More than half of all Africans live below the poverty line (on less than $1.50 a day) and more than three quarters reside in rural areas.14 It is this lack of money or other resources to purchase food that results in hunger, both chronic and hidden. Consequently, hunger leads to poverty, as hungry people produce below potential.3,12 In most parts of Africa, poverty continues to be a rural phenomenon, although urban poverty is on the in-crease, in its most dehumanizing forms. It is due to rural poverty that many people leave their homes in search of employment opportunities, resulting in poverty transition from rural to urban areas.
As sub-Saharan Africa continues to experience slow and stagnating economic growth, urban food insecurity has become a major development problem. Africa needs to create an environment that can attract both local and foreign investments, and thus provide people with opportunities to earn a living. Investors have to be assured of security for themselves and their investments; however, such guarantees are often not forthcoming in many of the conflict-torn areas of the continent.
THE DISEASE BURDEN
Africa is a continent of killer diseases, such as malaria, typhoid, tuberculosis and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Children are always at risk of morbidity, mortality and stunted growth. The disease burden slows down population growth, especially in the case of HIV/AIDS. It is reported that about 10,000 new HIV infections occur every day in sub-Saharan Africa, with over 14 million — 64 per cent of the world’s total death rate — succumbing to the disease.16,17 According to the Kenyan census carried out in 1999, the total population stood at 28,686,607,18 while the number of HIV-positive Kenyans was calculated at over 2 million in 2001.19 Reasons for particularly high infection rates among the poor are: that women are more likely to be infected by spouses who work away from home; there is a high prevalence of illiteracy and apathy, making it difficult for most awareness campaigns to have impact; and generally poor people have ceased to attach long-term value to their lives, being interested only in immediate survival.
The disease also affects food security in various ways: loss of manpower through death of the victims; the diversion of labour and other resources from food production to tending to the sick; erosion of the knowledge-base that the infected represent once they die; reduction of the family’s ability to purchase food; and a shift in food production activities, from crops that take long to yield but are high in nutritional value, to the adoption of fast growing crops.16 With severe land degradation, the sick find it difficult to produce much food from their own farms. Droughts, floods and effects of climate change impinge on farming activities. 20-25
WHEN FIREARMS REPLACE FARM IMPLEMENTS
Feeding the hungry in war- and conflict-torn regions has been and continues to be a major challenge. It is a sad reality that most parts of Africa have at one time or another been involved in violent conflicts, most of which have been internal, between certain ethnic groups within the affected countries. The causes of these conflicts have been varied: a desire to control certain mineral resource-rich areas, for example, in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone; the competition for scarce agricultural and grazing resources; and ethnic chauvinism. While some conflicts have ended quite some time ago, their deleterious effects on the environment, infrastructure, as well as the psyche and well-being of the nation, are still being felt.
For some countries, the conflicts are ongoing. Their most obvious and immediate effects are the injuries and deaths caused to both combatants and innocent civilians. In addition, conflicts lead to a disruption of the normal day to day economic activities, of which food production, marketing and distribution are integral. Not only are farms left unattended and market activities disrupted, but people are either displaced or too insecure to participate in productive activities. It is no wonder that this results in food insecurity and attendant hunger. Furthermore, displaced persons usually live in overcrowded conditions where they are exposed to disease outbreaks associated with unsanitary conditions. Finally, widespread malnutrition sets in, affecting mostly children, although pictures of emaciated adults have frequently appeared on television screens worldwide. Malnutrition in adults is emerging as a serious threat to food security, especially in the Horn of Africa, as affected individuals cannot be physically productive in food procurement or productivity. Pastoralist communities particularly in Kenya and Uganda, which are nomadic, are severely affected by conflicts.26, 27, 28
HOW HUNGER IS PUBLICLY VIEWED
Over time, African countries have been seen as inadequately prepared to cope with the after-shocks of natural disasters and emergencies. The climate in Africa is such that both periodic droughts and floods are experienced in alternate fashion. These two phenomena usually result in severe food shortages due to poor harvests. It is probably at such times that the rest of the world hears about Africa. Television screens and newspapers abroad become filled with images of starving, suffering, stranded and desperate Africans. Few can forget the haunting images of gaunt Ethiopians that moved the world to tears and into action during the 1984 famine, which left over 1 million people dead. During the 1994-1995 cropping season in southern Africa, cereal harvests declined by 35 per cent compared to the previous year, with maize harvest falling by 42 per cent due to drought.25, 28 Researchers have identified the recurring famines in sub-Saharan Africa as a “new variant”, which has been exacerbated by global climatic change, as well as the HIV/AIDS pandemic.30
BIOTECHNOLOGY IN AFRICA: PROBLEM OR PANACEA?
Few technologies have sparked as much debate in recent times as modern biotechnology. According to the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity,33 biotechnology may be defined as “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific uses”. Africa has often found itself right in the middle of the biotechnology controversy. The application of modern biotechnology to agricultural production represents a great potential for increasing food production, reducing food losses and, as such, reducing food shortages and attendant hunger.
There are already several success stories that have been reported, including the production of crops with an increased tolerance to adverse environmental conditions, such as droughts and salinity, as well as increased resistance to pests and weeds. The food crops in question are potatoes, maize, soybeans and tomatoes,34 but clearly there is potential for many more. The reduced use of pesticides and herbicides has resulted in a better quality and greater nutrition of food.35, 36
The controversy surrounding the application of this technology to food production seems to stem from issues of safety, which need to be addressed. In 2002, many lives in southern Africa were threatened by imminent death from starvation, as a result of drought-sparked food shortages. The international community, through the World Food Programme (WFP), stepped in and offered to avert this by using genetically modified food aid. However, Governments bluntly refused, citing the potential health risks associated with this commodity.
It was quite unfair to ask the starving masses to choose between immediate death and perceived death associated with the consumption of genetically modified food. This opinion was particularly prevalent in Zambia, where concerns raised included the “poisonous” nature of the donated maize and the possibility of future “contamination” of Zambian grain by pollen from the genetically modified maize.37 What emerges is not only a need to adequately educate the public on biotechnology, but also for African scientists to be well-versed so they can advise their Governments. Much emotional outburst has no scientific basis. Given the globalization of food trade, it is going to be difficult for Africa to cushion itself against what might be perceived as “bad technology” for the continent.
Although Africa’s many problems negatively impact its ability to feed itself, Africans remain a people of hope. However, it is not enough just to have hope. Africans must act and act fast, in collaboration with the international community, to eradicate hunger in the future.
A key ingredient will be the alleviation of poverty, both rural and urban, which will enable more people to adequately access food. It is a given that no meaningful economic growth can occur in an undemocratic environment and without adequate infra-structure in place. African leaders have a responsibility to implement policies that foster democracy, which will result in greater social and economic development due to a decrease in human rights violations, thus creating an environment for greater economic investment, both domestic and foreign.
Agriculture continues to play an integral role in the economies of most African countries. As such, it is imperative that Governments take actions that will promote rural and agricultural development. Some viable options include upgrading subsistence agriculture to increase food production, improving the capacity of the human capital to participate in trade and utilizing production enhancement technologies such as biotechnology, increasing rural access to land, labour and credit, and providing better infrastructure and social services in rural areas.
In order to reduce a vulnerability to food shortages, caused by natural disasters, it will be necessary for African Governments to improve infrastructure, especially with regards to early warning systems and food distribution. Furthermore, countries will always need to maintain strategic national food reserves through effective production, preservation and processing.
The contribution to be made by empowering women cannot be emphasized enough. According to Joachim von Braun, women increase staple food-crop yield by 22 per cent when women farmers obtain the same levels of education, experience, access to farm extension services and inputs as their male counterparts. This is particularly important since women play a central role as producers of food, managers of natural resources, income-earners and caretakers of food and nutrition security.30
Finally, having implemented all these proposals, Africans will have placed themselves in a better position to effectively achieve freedom from hunger in a manner that is socially, economically, politically and environmentally sustainable and able to enhance the international standing of the continent.