Sub-Saharan Africa: Big challenges, big potential

by Erica Shaffer
Share This:

Sub-Saharan Africa is a place with vast problems and vast potential. It has food shortages in some areas that make food aid vital to ensure that its populations survive and thrive. It has a climate which makes efficient agriculture a challenge. And it has economic problems that make finding long-term solutions to its food supply challenges difficult.

Yet, with a population of just under 800 million people, according to the World Bank, it is also an important market for the world’s grain exporters and a place where production can be expanded to produce surpluses with the right management from government, aid agencies, donors and farmers.

Didier Hazoume, chief operating officer of Lagos, Nigeriabased Crown Flour Mills, gave an overview of the region’s market at the International Grains Council’s annual conference in June. "Sub-Saharan Africa is rich in natural resources like crude oil, gold, iron ore and coal, and strong demand for these commodities is driving economic growth throughout the region," he said.

Parts of Sub-Saharan Africa are of great economic importance. "The United States imports as many barrels of crude oil every day from West African countries as it does from the Persian Gulf," he said.

Root crops have been the staple of traditional diets, but rapid urbanization means they are fast being replaced by wheatbased foods.

Hazoume explained that taste preferences in bread tend to relate to the colonial past of each country, with British-style high bread favored in former British colonies, baguettes favored in former French and Belgian colonies, and crispy rolls popular in ex-Portuguese colonies.

He expected Sub-Saharan Africa would continue to import most of its wheat, simply because its climate means that very little wheat is produced there. In 2007-08, U.S. exports to the region were 3.63 million tonnes. "Argentina, the E.U. and Canada aggressively compete with the United States for Sub-Saharan Africa’s wheat business," he said.

It’s a market he expects to get more important. "Based on population growth and wheat consumption trends, market potential for U.S. wheat exports is considerable," he said


Frederic Mousseau, policy advisor to the charity Oxfam, is a believer in the potential for Africa to achieve much higher levels of self-sufficiency. "It could be self-sufficient or an exporter," he told World Grain. "The potential is there. It’s a matter of having the right agriculture and the right politics in place."

It was not necessarily a matter of having large-scale commercial farms, although he did point out that the big farming companies which exist in South Africa and Zimbabwe have, in the past, allowed them to be big exporters.

Even so, he believed small was the way to go. "We have a massive amount of evidence that small farmers are those in which we need to invest to improve food production in Sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "We can improve production with best management of natural resources."

Constraints on the environment and the ability of African countries to finance change meant different answers would have to be found. "We can’t have the green revolution we had in Asia," Mousseau said. "It doesn’t mean we can’t do some big things."

He said governments such as Malawi’s, for example, could turn the situation around by taking the right action. "Malawi was in food crisis," he said. "It got a lot of food aid in 2002 and 2005. Since then, there have been years when they have been exporters."

Mousseau criticized an overemphasis on providing inputs. "What we’ve seen a lot in the recent past has been a focus on the provision of inputs, especially fertilizers," he said. "You’ve got to have agricultural inputs, but it’s not necessarily sustainable. It relies on the provision of funds. It’s high cost."

The provision of large-scale agricultural inputs, especially fertilizer, could effectively mean exporting yield. "It develops a model which makes countries dependent on inputs and affects soil fertility," he said. "The environment is not adapted to its use. It requires farmers to start again and again until it works."

Fertilizer has even ended up where it can’t be used. "At the moment, the Port of Djibouti is completely crammed with shipments of fertilizer. There are a number of experts saying it’s crazy to have so much resources going into fertilizer. They need to invest in crops to develop more integrated agricultural production, a different way of looking at food production," Mousseau said.


Mousseau quoted the example of a Malian farmers’ leader he had met last autumn. "With the big food crisis and high prices, he’d invested in rice," he said. "But now he’s in trouble. They had a 70% increase in rice production in one year. Local prices collapsed at the time of harvest."

Market mechanisms did not always work in the region. "That’s why it’s more essential in Africa than anywhere to have some kind of mechanism to stabilize prices and support farmers," he said. "Markets do not function well. Farmers are not connected to international markets."

Without stability they could run out of money. "You saw that in Ethiopia in 2002 — such a decline in farm-gate prices that they could not repay loans," he said.

It meant that the developed countries would have to stop telling the Africans to run free markets and encourage them to use some of the market management measures which have been used in the E.U. and U.S., in particular.

"This is what we’ve done in the U.S. and Europe," he said "All the big U.S. programs started because of its government buying stocks from farmers." He stopped short of saying there should be African policies along the lines of the E.U.’s Common Agricultural Policy in its pre-reform state. "I’m not saying we should go back to those policies," Mousseau said. "There are many ways governments can intervene."

The increased volatility of world markets over the past several years has made it increasingly necessary for governments to take action to create stable conditions for agriculture, he said.

"Especially now, we have very volatile food markets which are going to remain volatile," he said. "We need support to farmers, which allows them to increase production."


Like Mousseau, World Bank economist Sergiy Zorya felt that a different approach was needed to the Asian-style green revolution. "Wide heterogeneity of rain-fed systems requires adaptation of technologies and services to local conditions," he told World Grain. But the region does need to expand the use of inputs, in his view, as well as ensuring better adoption and use of existing seed varieties and fertilizers, "because these hold the potential to double yields."

"Accelerating adoption requires improved incentives, investments in agricultural research and extension systems, access to financial services, targeted irrigation investments, and ‘market smart’ subsidies to stimulate input markets," he said.

Zorya also stressed the need for more research and better training in agriculture, as well as "providing well-targeted, market-smart subsidies to build stronger private sector-driven input markets in the region, and investing in irrigation where it is economically and ecologically feasible."


He also stressed the need lower costs. "Strong evidence exists that physical isolation prevents large areas of Africa from realizing their agricultural potential, and easing market access constraints, especially through better rural roads, would induce supply response and subsequent growth in agricultural productivity," he said. "The research from Uganda, Tanzania, and Malawi, among others, shows that investments in rural feeder roads have a higher internal rate of return than comparable investments in secondary roads or main roads as long these roads are at least in fair condition."

It is also important to promote cross-border trade. Regional trade has been liberalized, but the continent remains notorious for export bans and non-tariff barriers at the borders which prevent farmers from receiving fair prices and supply consumers in deficit areas.

He cited research showing that African agriculture would grow annually 2% more with improvements in market access and reduction in marketing costs.

Small-holders make up 70% of Africa’s farmers, Zorya said. "Large-scale production of grains is still rare, due to the land scarcity in some areas, high costs of capital and inadequate infrastructure, among other reasons," he said. "The growth in farm size is also constrained by low job opportunities in urban areas, thus keeping people on their land."

"So, the future growth in grain production will come from small farms, eventually making use of Africa’s comparative advantage," he said.

"Its natural agricultural resource base has considerable potential for rapid productivity growth in staples, which would be highly pro-poor, and in the longer run will facilitate a fundamental transformation in the economy through new opportunities for industry (e.g., agro-processing), growth opportunities for rural non-farm activities and increased regional and international trade, as well as new employment options through expanded migration."

Although he expected small family farms to survive any revolution in African agriculture, "one can imagine that they will at least shrink in importance as large-scale commercial farming takes root," he said. "It is easy to predict that large-scale commercial farming will first have to take root across Africa before small farms lose some of their current importance and pass on the key role they currently assume in ensuring food security."

Chris Lyddon is World Grain’s European editor. He may be contacted at:

We want to hear from you — Send comments and inquiries to For reprints of WG articles, e-mail