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."
As the FAO notes in its June Food Outlook, biofuel production from grains and vegetable oils is driving up food prices globally; food imports in the least developed countries of the world, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, cost 90 percent more in 2007 than in 2000. There is a silver lining, according to Sanchez. "It's a fantastic opportunity to increase production when things are at a higher price."
"This biofuels question is really going to bedevil us," adds Jeffrey Sachs, director of The Earth Institute." [Such] vast acreage is going to come out of the forest margins against a backdrop of quite massive deforestation. And about 23 percent of carbon emissions are directly from deforestation."
It remains to be seen if improved agricultural techniques, wider use of fertilizer and government subisidies help promote development and curb hunger in sub-Saharan Africa—a true "green revolution" like the one that took place in Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. "If food levels are going up, they are not going up in sufficient numbers," says Zachary Muburi-Muita, U.N. ambassador from Kenya. "The condition on the continent that leads to ecological stress is really low incomes."
But improving farming may yet prove the key to solving that dilemma, as it remains the key form of economic activity in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank report notes. And Sanchez is in full agreement: "Agriculture is the engine of growth." After all, Malawi has done it, with a little help from mother nature. "Any farmer can get the inputs at a 75 percent discount," he says. "That does it, coupled with a couple years with no horrible droughts."