Can Africa Feed Itself?

Demand for cereals in Africa south of the Sahara could triple by 2050, and increasing current yields on the region’s existing farmland alone may not be enough to meet that demand, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study looks at five main staple cereal crops (maize, millet, rice, sorghum, and wheat) in ten countries in Africa south of the Sahara (Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia). These cereals make up approximately 50 percent of the region’s total caloric intake and crop area. The paper aims to determine whether self-sufficiency can be reached in these crops by 2050 and whether this can be done using only existing cropland area or if it will require cropland expansion and increased food imports.

The lag between population growth and cereal yield growth is of particular concern. Over the past ten years, cereal yields have grown more slowly than the population in all study countries except Ethiopia and Zambia. During the same time period, total cropland area has increased by 14 percent, with much of this increase taking place in Ethiopia and Tanzania and stemming from deforestation, conversion of marginal grazing lands, and recultivation of previously abandoned crop land.  In the 10 study countries, population is expected to increase between two- and four-fold by 2050, driving cereal demand up by 335 percent.  In Niger and Zambia, demand is projected to grow by 500 percent.

The authors find that cereal yields will need to increase to 80 percent of their potential (defined as the yields that could be attained under unconstrained growth and perfect management) in order to maintain current levels of self-sufficiency in 2050. If current cereal yield rates continue to 2050, the study countries will need to expand their total cropland by an additional 97 million hectares (185 percent) to meet the increased cereal demand; such an expansion in cropland will bring with it increased greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. In addition, seven of the 10 study countries do not even have enough land suitable for agriculture to reach the level of expansion needed for cereal self-sufficiency under 2050’s higher demands.

Thus, even with increased cereal yields and expanded farmland, many countries will still need to increase their food imports to meet their domestic cereal needs and ensure food security. Increasing imports brings with it another set of challenges, however, as many low-income developing countries lack the foreign exchange reserves to pay for needed food imports, as well as the domestic infrastructure to efficiently store and distribute imported food.

Rather than relying just on expanding cropland and increasing imports, the authors suggest also increasing cropping intensity (the number of crops grown every 12 months on the same field) and increasing irrigated area. These strategies could be more sustainable, environmentally-friendly options and could help increase cereal production and reduce reliance on imports. However, the authors also point out that not all regions can support these options sustainably; each country’s economic and environmental conditions need to be analyzed to determine whether expansions in irrigation and cropping intensity have long-term potential.

The study also emphasizes the fact that in addition to agro-ecological conditions, many socio-economic and institutional factors also play a role in increasing agricultural production. Greater investment in agricultural research and development will be needed from both the public and the private sectors, particularly regarding ways to increase agricultural yields while still protecting natural resources and environmental quality (such as soil health). In addition, government policies and budgets need to support improved transportation and communication infrastructure, market infrastructure, credit and insurance services, and land entitlements.

Read a press release from the study authors. 

By: Sara Gustafson

Photo credit:Curt Carnemark / World Bank