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February 20, 2019

Why is Africa still hungry?


World hunger is on the rise once again. Food security has visibly worsened in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the United Nations, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest prevalence of undernourishment, affecting about 23 per cent of the population. The situation is worse in Eastern Africa, where the prevalence of undernutrition was about 34 per cent in 2016.

The African Development Bank estimates that Africa spends about $35 billion (Sh3.53 trillion) annually on food importation, and that is estimated to increase to about $110 billion by 2025. Moreover, the number of undernourished people in Africa will rise to 320 million in 2025, up from 240 million in 2015. What Africa spends on food imports now outstrips net ODA flows into the continent, which stood at $27 billion in 2016.

Africa has 65 per cent of the world’s uncultivated land. Moreover, the country with the youngest population in the world is also the most undernourished. At 57.7 per cent, Burundi has the highest proportion of stunting on the continent. The average stunting rate in East Africa is estimated at 44 per cent.

And here at home, an estimated 3.4 million Kenyans in 23 of the 47 counties were food insecure in September 2017. This was a whopping 31 per cent increase from February 2017. As a result, about 421,000 children under five and 39,000 pregnant and lactating mothers faced acute malnutrition.

Why is Africa still hungry many decades after the colonialists left Africans to run their own affairs? Why is Africa still hungry when the continent recorded the highest GDP growth and is on the upswing? Why does agriculture, which employs more than 70 per cent of Africa’s workforce, contribute the least to the continent’s GDP? It would appear that a Rising Africa could indeed exist side by side, in relative harmony, with a Starving Africa.

Why is Africa still hungry when it is jam-packed with NGOs, civil society, research and academic institutions focused on agriculture? Why is Africa hungry when the World Bank, AfDB and foundations such the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller foundations and MasterCard have made available hundreds of millions of dollars to fund agriculture. Why is Africa still hungry when thousands of African researchers have received higher training in agronomy, economics, soil science, crop and animal breeding, agroforestry, finance and insurance? Why is Africa hungry when each country has an agriculture department and a plethora of policies and strategies? Is the reason Africa is hungry really about inadequate human capacity and institutions?

Africa’s chronic food deficit reminds me of John Godfrey Saxe’s poem, The Blind Men and the Elephant. For nearly a century, different experts have sworn that the problem is markets or inputs or genetics or roads or policies or finance or post-harvest losses or property rights for women or subsidies or value addition. Experts have debated loud and long. While each expert has been partially right, all were wrong about Africa’s agriculture. Why is Africa still hungry?

Alex O. Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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