GREEN REVOLUTION: Simply subsidizing fertilizer and seed to grow improved corn strains has allowed countries like Malawi to improve their agricultural productivity. Image: COURTESY OF WORLD FISH CENTER
For the first time since record keeping began in the 1960s, per capita food production in sub-Saharan Africa is beginning to rise.
According to the World Bank's World Development Report 2007, "agricultural growth in sub-Saharan Africa has accelerated from 2.3 percent per year in the 1980s to 3.3 percent in the 1990s and to 3.8 percent per year between 2000 and 2005." As a result, the report stated, "rural poverty has also started to decline in 10 of 13 countries analyzed."
This is thanks largely to an African "green revolution"—a combination of better crop varieties and increased use of fertilizers—says soil scientist Pedro Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture at The Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City and co-leader of the Millennium Villages Project, an effort to transform selected African villages with targeted aid and technology interventions.
"The green revolution called for by [former U.N. Secretary General] Kofi Annan in 2004 is really beginning to happen," Sanchez says. "Countries, like Malawi, have gone from net food importers to net food exporters."
"In past years, food production had not been keeping up with population growth," adds a spokesperson for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "In recent years, food production has been increasing more than population growth."
Countries, such as Malawi, have transformed their food production using relatively simple means: With the help of government subsidies, farmers can now obtain two bags of fertilizer and five kilograms of hybrid maize seed at just 25 percent of the actual price. And, whereas the World Bank and other donors have refrained from such agricultural subsidies over the past few decades due to concerns about corruption, they are now supporting them and refocusing on agriculture as a priority. "It's a 180-degree turn for the better," Sanchez says. "You can avoid corruption by keeping it on a small scale."
And thanks to high prices for crops such as corn, which can also be used to make fuel, farmers have been able to absorb the rise in fertilizer prices, which have spiked in response to buoyant oil prices (that are also driving demand for biofuels). "[Fertilizer] is expensive as hell," Sanchez admits. But "if you are able to use it, it pays."
A host of problems still face sub-Saharan Africa—from lack of access to agricultural markets in the developed world to a continued failure to produce enough food for the people living there. "Ethiopia is about to quadruple its food production from 1997 levels," Sanchez says. "It's still not enough for self-sufficiency."
And growing economic pressure globally to produce biofuels rather than food may mean that hunger will not be erased anytime soon. Augustine Mahiga, ambassador to the United Nations from Tanzania, notes that his office has been approached to partner with investors in massive plantations—as large as 600,000 acres (242,800 hectares)—to produce biofuels from palm oil, Jatropha or sugarcane. "Diverting food production to the production of biofuels…," Mahiga says, "is particularly dangerous to Africa at this point in time."