Could Africa feed the world?

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Those of you of a similar age to myself will almost certainly remember a song about feeding the world; part of the world that needed feeding at the time was sub-Saharan Africa, and sadly that is still the case in some locations (as well as in places on other continents). But is it possible that Africa could feed not only itself but the rest of the world as well? Kanayo Nwanze, the president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, seems to think it can:

Nwanze drew a sharp contrast between Gansu province, in northwest China, and parts of Africa that cannot feed itself. He said like many parts of the world, Gansu suffers from frequent drought, limited water for irrigation and severe soil erosion. Yet despite the weather and the harsh environment, the farmers in the Gansu programme area are feeding themselves and increasing their incomes.

“I met one farmer whose income had risen from only $2 (£1.20) a day in 2006 to $35 a day last year,” he exclaimed.

So when asked why this could be done in China but not Africa, Nwanze said the vital difference was government policy.

“What I saw in Gansu was the result of government policy to invest in rural areas and to reduce the gap between the rural and the urban and stem migration,” he said in a telephone interview. “It has a very harsh environment, it has only 300 millimetres of rain annually, compared to parts of the Sahel which gets 400-600 millimetres, but the government has invested in roads and electricity. We found a community willing to transform their lives by harvesting rainwater, using biogas, terracing mountain slopes. There are crops for livestock, they are growing vegetables, wheat and maize, and generating income that allows them to build resilience.”

While Somalia is a worst-case scenario, Nwanze continues, in Ethiopia and Djibouti there has been a lack of long-term investment that makes them vulnerable to climate change. “It is not enough to wait for crisis to turn to disaster to act. The rains will fail again, but governments have not invested in the ability of populations to resist drought.”

Nwanze argues that Africa is facing the fallout of decades of neglecting agriculture, a fault that lies with African governments and aid donors.

Mismanagement and climate change to blame, rather than some fundamental property of the continent itself? A Chinese province used as an exemplar of rural land development? Unthinkable! These are backward nations, desperately in need of the guiding hand of corporate capitalism and parliamentary democracy! </sarcasm>

I rather like imagining a future where Africa becomes an arable breadbasket with an economic boom based on mobile and wireless technologies. After all, it’s not looking any less likely than the so-called First World pulling its collective finger out of the arse of the investment banking sector, now is it?

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6 Responses to “Could Africa feed the world?”

  1. Dave says:

    “Mismanagement” is huge. Ultimately, almost all Third-World poverty is caused by “mismanagement” and bad government. Saying that Africa could be a breadbasket if “mismanagement” were solved is almost vacuous. Over time, “mismanagement” explains essentially all the differences between rich countries and poor countries.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    … “mismanagement” explains essentially all the differences between rich countries and poor countries.

    Um. Citation needed. I mean, yeah, big contributing factor, certainly, but what has caused that state of bad governance and mismanagement? Mismanagement is the symptom, not the disease.

  3. Robert Koslover says:

    Paul, I must agree with Dave. Mismanagement (aka, corruption, authoritarianism, lack of freedom, and/or lack of rule of law) really is the disease. The poverty is the symptom. The problem with authoritarian (or alternatively, with law-less regimes), which do not recognize property rights (except for property owned by the state and/or the despot or local crime boss) is that the generic individual simply has no incentive to work hard to acquire property, since the state and or criminals will simply take it all away. I used to wonder why poor people in poor countries spend so much time sitting around and accomplishing nothing, rather than doing things like digging latrines, building housing, farming land, making irrigation ditches, sewing clothing, etc. I (and millions of other well-intentioned people in the free world) used to think this was because they simply didn’t know how, and what they needed was to be taught/educated. But that is (mostly) not the case. The real problem is that if individuals in such societies actually do anything that results in significantly improving the land, or their homes, then those improvements will be promptly seized by either the local bully/crime-boss or the despotic government. Get rid of those factors (not an easy thing to do!) and poverty can likely be nearly erased worldwide.

  4. Rick York says:

    There’s a certain irony in citing the general mismanagement of most, if not all, African nations.

    As of this moment, 20:24 30 July 2011, look at the state of the U.S. One would be led to think that the U.S., along with the P.I.G.S of Europe, is being seriously mismanaged.

    We elect right wingers who hate government to manage that same government. This has led to a very predictable result; bad government.

    Africa is just the extreme of what can happen with bad governance.

  5. AnthonyA says:

    Zimbabwe went from a very well-off nation, able to feed its own people and produce a hefty surplus for export, to one of the poorest in Africa in about ten years. She is unable to feed her own people and suffering from hyperinflation and near civil war. Life expectancy has been cut to less than 40 years. All thanks to the policies of government under (dictator) President Mugabe. That’s my concrete example. It wasn’t the weather, it wasn’t anything but a government that was out to pillage and loot the country for all they could get, starting from the top down.

  6. Dave says:

    Saw something that made me want to return to this. Adam Smith (1776) wrote, “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” This continues to be the well-supported conventional wisdom in economics. Peace and a tolerable administration of justice (ie fair and orderly government) are the missing ingredients that keeps most poor countries poor today.

    Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson are famous for the argument that poor countries today continue to be poorly governed because of the influence of past colonialism. They have a very clever paper about this (and a book coming out, “Why Nations Fail” — could be very good). Basically their theory is that when colonists came to countries with exploitable resources and unskilled labor, they set up “extractive” institutions of government, which were designed to get the gold out of the ground and back to Europe with the least cost to Europeans. By contrast, when colonists ca,e to countries without gold and labor forces, they set up the kinds of institutions Europeans would want to live under — relatively fair and rule-governed ones. This institutional legacy explains why some post-colonies have succeeded and others have been mired in poverty.

    Here’s a link to the paper, which features a very clever research design:
    http://economics.mit.edu/files/4123

    (is there any way to subscribe to comments here? I often forget to check whether people are replying to mine.)