Sub-Saharan Africa has only slowly tackled problems of undernourishment and moved toward food security, although the outlook varies widely from country to country. The region is already dependent on grain imports to feed its people, and population growth means the challenge of feeding itself in the coming decades is immense. Climate change likely will make it even more difficult. Innovation and research and making sure that farmers have access to the fruits of that innovation and research, are vital.

In the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook for 2016-2025, the two UN organizations produced a “Special Focus: Sub-Saharan Africa,” which considered the region’s future in depth.

The sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) region accounts for more than 950 million people, approximately 13% of the global population, the report said. By 2050, this share is projected to increase to almost 22%, or 2.1 billion.

“Undernourishment has been a long-standing challenge, with uneven progress across the region,” the report said. “Despite being reduced from 33% in 1990-92 to 23% in 2014-16, the percentage of undernourishment remains the highest among developing regions. Owing to rapid population growth of 2.7% per year over the same period, the absolute number of undernourished people has increased by 44 million to reach 218 million.

“Slow progress toward food security has been attributed to low productivity of agricultural resources, high population growth rates, political instability and civil strife. However, vast regional differences remain and the success achieved in countries with stable political conditions, economic growth and expanding agricultural sectors suggests that appropriate governance systems, institutional capacities, and macro-economic, structural and sectoral policies can work together to improve food security on a long-lasting and sustainable basis.”

Megatrends include demographic change, the rise of the African middle class, growing access to new information and communication technologies, rapid urbanization and consequent shifts in food demand, the OECD-FAO report said.

“This is accompanied by downstream modernization of food systems, a considerable shift in the labor force from farming to nonfarm jobs, and rising global interest in available African farmland strengthened by the sharp rise in agricultural commodity prices over the past decade,” the OECD-FAO said. “The African model of agricultural growth differed significantly from that of Asia or South America. In Asia, growth was driven largely by intensification, whereas in South America, it was the result of significant improvement in labor productivity arising from mechanization. By contrast, strong growth in SSA agricultural output has accrued predominantly from area expansion and intensification of cropping systems, as opposed to large-scale improvement in productivity.”

According to the report, productivity per agricultural worker had improved a factor of 1.6 in Africa in the previous 30 years, compared to a factor of 2.5 for Asia.

“Given that SSA is generally regarded as land abundant, continued area expansion in the coming decade may not seem problematic,” the OECD-FAO said. “However, rural SSA is highly heterogeneous and while much of its land is unutilized or underutilized, a considerable share of its rural population resides in smallholder farming areas that are densely populated and face land shortages.”

The report also explained that much of the underutilized land is concentrated in relatively few countries and between one-half and two-thirds of surplus land is currently under forest cover.

“Conversion of such forest land to agriculture would come at considerable environmental cost,” the report said. “In land-constrained countries, area-driven growth may come at the expense of fallows. Rising rural populations and associated land pressures has resulted in continuous cropping in many African countries, with fallows largely disappearing in densely populated areas. Continuous cultivation of existing plots would not necessarily pose problems for sustainable intensification if sufficient use of fertilizers, soil amendment practices and other land-augmenting investments are employed and coupled with continued education to maintain and improve soil quality.”

However, it noted a problem with soil degradation due to unsustainable cultivation practices.

“Continuous cultivation and lack of crop rotation deplete organic carbon levels, making soil less responsive to fertilizer application,” the report said. “This also makes it more difficult for smallholder farmers to benefit from yield gains offered by plant genetic improvement.”

According to the OECD-FAO report, the SSA region is a surplus coarse grain producer, and while the size of the surplus is projected to fall by 2025, the trade balance for both maize and other coarse grains remains positive.

It pointed out that in contrast to imports of wheat and rice, trade in maize was mainly within the region.

“Traditional surplus producers such as South Africa, Zambia and Ethiopia continue to account for the greatest share of export growth, while Kenya and Zimbabwe remain the largest deficit markets,” the OECD-FAO report said. “In South Africa, trade into the SSA region is projected to decline, as continued demand growth from the animal feed market supports a shift in production from white to yellow maize, resulting in surpluses of yellow maize entering the global market as opposed to the rest of the SSA region.”

Greatest food security risk

An article entitled “Can Sub-Saharan Agriculture Feed Itself,” published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and edited by Robert John Scholes, University of the Witwatersrand, Wits, South Africa, said the rise in food demand in sub-Saharan Africa in the years leading up to 2050 will be much greater than in the world as a whole.

“Indeed, SSA is the region at greatest food security risk because by 2050 its population will increase 2.5-fold and demand for cereals approximately triple, whereas current levels of cereal consumption already depend on substantial imports,” the article said. “At issue is whether SSA can meet this vast increase in cereal demand without greater reliance on cereal imports or major expansion of agricultural area and associated biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions.”

The article explained that while studies had indicated that the worldwide rise in food demand by 2050 could be met by closing the gap between current yields and the potential yield, using existing farmland, it will not be feasible to meet future SSA demand for grains using that strategy alone.

“Our agronomically robust yield gap analysis for 10 countries in SSA using location-specific data and a spatial upscaling approach reveals that, in addition to yield gap closure, other more complex and uncertain components of intensification are also needed,” the article said.

That meant increasing cropping intensity, which means upping the number of crops grown in the same field each year, and a sustainable expansion of the area irrigated.

“If intensification is not successful and massive cropland land expansion is to be avoided, SSA will depend much more on imports of cereals than it does today,” the article said.

It focuses on Burkina Faso, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia, looking at whether they can achieve self-sufficiency in maize, millet, rice, sorghum, and wheat by 2050. Those commodities are central to food security, accounting for around 50% of the caloric intake and 50% of the total crop area in the region. The 10 countries account for 54% of the 2010 population of Sub-Saharan Africa and 58% of the 2010 arable land in the region.

“Estimated cereal demand by 2050 for the 10 countries is 335% of that in 2010 under the medium population projections and projected per capita demand,” the article said. “Population growth alone accounts for approximately three-quarters of this increase and is thus much more important than per capita increase in demand due to dietary changes.

The article explained that the results for the region as a whole are unlikely to be better than for the 10 countries.

“Results reveal that although yield gap closure on existing cropland and a large acceleration in yield growth rates are essential to achieve cereal self-sufficiency, they are most likely not sufficient,” the article said. “For instance, increasing maize yields from the approximately 20% of yield potential in 2010 to 50% by 2050 implies a doubling of annual yield increases compared with the past decades. Even then, cereal areas must increase by more than 80% to realize self-sufficiency in the 10 countries. Therefore, the path to self-sufficiency will likely require, in addition to yield gap closure, increased cropping intensity and expansion of irrigated production area in regions that can support these options in a sustainable manner.

“Failure to achieve these intensification options will result in increasing dependence on cereal imports and vast expansion of rainfed cropland area, especially because population in SSA is projected to further increase between 2050 and 2100 by a factor of 1.9 and anticipated climate change will make the situation even more challenging. In highlighting the need for intensification through accelerated yield growth, greater cropping intensity, and increased irrigated area, we emphasize the importance of adequate R&D investments by the public and private sectors, accompanied by facilitating government policies to meet this challenge and to ensure intensification without negative environmental consequences.”