Rapid urbanisation, a youth bulge, and an expanding middle class are the hallmarks of Africa’s unprecedented transformation. Some of the world’s fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. According to most Western leaders and aid agencies, the state of Africa is no longer “a scar on the conscience of the world”.
Africa’s unprecedented transformation is also spawning new and urgent challenges, many of which defy conventional approaches and solutions. Despite impressive average GDP growth performance Africa is stalked by hunger and malnutrition. It is estimated that the number of malnourished Africans will rise from 132 million to 220 million by 2050.
The scale of hunger and malnutrition could undermine human capital formation and economic growth prospects. The Cost of Hunger in Africa Study of 12 countries estimates that Egypt has 1.9 per cent cut from its GDP because not all of its children get enough to eat, Uganda loses 5.6 per cent, Ghana 6.5 per cent and Ethiopia a staggering 16.5 per cent.
According to the latest Cost of Hunger report released in Accra early August, 24 per cent of child deaths in Ghana were associated with undernutrition, which reduced the workforce by 7.3 per cent. Moreover, it is estimated that undernutrition causes 45 per cent of all child deaths in sub-Saharan Africa – 3.1 million deaths annually.
At the heart of Africa’s hunger and undernutrition challenge is its dysfunctional food systems – the interdependent socioeconomic and ecological factors that influence production, post-harvest handling, distribution, processing, marketing, access and consumption. Africa has the lowest per capita staple food production in the world. The use of modern inputs, including technology, irrigation, fertilisers, and improved seeds, is uncommon.
Africa’s small rural farms rely on family labour and have limited access to advisory services, technology or improved inputs. These remote small-scale production units are often isolated and poorly connected to supporting services, such as decent roads, healthcare and markets. According to FAO, the average age of the African smallholder farmer is about 60 and mostly women, even though the median age of the population is about 19 years. Small-scale farm households in many parts of Africa are often food and nutrition insecure between six and nine months a year.
Food security and good nutrition are the cornerstone of healthy communities and economies. Without adequate and nutritious food, African children cannot live, learn, flourish, and communities cannot achieve inclusive socioeconomic prosperity. Africa must begin to invest to revitalise smallholder agriculture as a foundation for durable and inclusive prosperity. Such investment must target and respond to critical constraints, especially in production, post-harvest handling, value addition, use of technology, markets and equitable access to nutritious food.
African governments, the African Development Bank and the World Bank must lead this effort and appreciate that structural transformation, sustainable economic growth and shared prosperity in Africa will not be delivered by multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects alone. Thriving smallholder agriculture can revitalise rural economies, provide stable incomes and secure livelihoods for women and youth, drive real economic transformation and deliver inclusive prosperity.
Dr. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University