Africa: Can it help feed us all?

Africa’s Potential Bread Basket

It is people who make the world: the bush has wounds and scars.’ – a Malawian proverb

Global food security is one of the most serious concerns of our time. The global food system is at the root of many environmental and health crises.

Humans have made the African savanna their home since the dawn of time and have greatly affected the environment. People in pre-colonial Africa were engaged in hunting and gathering, agriculture, mining and simple manufacturing. Agriculture involved most people and there were many different systems of agricultural production in pre-colonial Africa, to suit the variety of conditions the people faced. Without modern machinery and modern inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides they were not, however, able to transform nature on a large scale and were to a large extent at the mercy of the land and the weather. Intensive agriculture makes it possible for populations to grow.

Today, Africa does not grow enough food to feed its own population and African countries have tended to satisfy their increasing demand through expensive imports from the global market. The agriculture sector in many African countries is in a perilous state. It’s a situation that results in discontent and unrest. It is stating the obvious that the solution to the food crisis in Africa is for Africa to grow more food. Africa does in fact have the ability to grow enough food not only to feed itself, but also to help feed the rest of the world.

Africa is host to 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land, yet currently spends tens of billions of dollars per year on importing food. This figure is projected to shoot up to US$110 billion by 2025. Africa is importing what it could actually be producing. African countries export raw goods outside the continent to be processed into consumer products imported back into Africa for purchase. In essence, Africa is exporting jobs outside the continent, and contributing to Africa’s poverty.

The African Guinea Savannah is one of the largest underused agricultural land reserves in the world with less than 10 percent used to produce crops. An area twice as large as that planted to wheat worldwide – a swathe of land with potential fertility that runs from the coasts of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Senegal eastwards to the Ethiopian border, then veers southeast to cover parts of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Congo before spreading across the continent over large areas of Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and western Madagascar. Population figures are hard to come by when looking at the savanna, ranging from two to over 100 people per square mile and roughly 45 percent live in urban centres.

The Guinea Savannah zone covers about 600 million hectares, of which about 400 million hectares could be used for crop agriculture. Currently, less than 10 percent of this area is being cultivated. This region has the potential to feed Africa and send produce elsewhere. It features a warm tropical climate with 800–1,200 millimeters of rainfall annually, allowing for a growing period of 150–210 days. The variable annual rainfall and poor soil quality make this a challenging agro-ecological environment. It supports three main farming systems:

(a) the root crop farming system; (b) the mixed cereal-root crop farming system; and (c) the maize mixed farming system.

All have potential for increasing agricultural production. The zone is one of the major under-used resources in Africa. It accounts for about one-third of the land area in Sub-Saharan Africa and underpins the livelihoods of more than one-quarter of all African farmers. Maize is the most important cereal in most African countries and also serves as a staple food source for some 200 million people in the developing countries. People have farmed grains in this area for centuries. One could try to enhance productivity through increasing use of manure to better fertilize their fields. Or to be mixing creatively different crops together that complement one another, so mixing legumes with grains, for instance — the legumes fix nitrogen and increase grain productivity. But one that is not so dependent on fossil fuel inputs from outside of the area.

According to Akinwumi Adesina, the president of the African Development Bank:

‘There is therefore absolutely no reason for Africa to be a food-importing region. Africa has huge potential in agriculture, but, as Dr. Borlaug used to say, nobody eats potential… Unlocking that potential must start with the savannas of Africa.’

There is indeed no ‘absolute reason’ why Africa couldn’t produce enough food to feed its inhabitants, but there is a practical one: capitalism and its production for profit instead of to meet people’s need for food (and everything else).

However, there is a cautionary note. When land is cleared and cultivated, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere from the soil, and the plants, shrubs and trees that grow there. The more densely the land is packed with vegetation, the more carbon is released when it is cleared. Nevertheless, if even a small fraction is turned into farm-land – some 16 million hectares – is transformed, it could set Africa up to decrease dependence on food from elsewhere, feed itself and contribute to feeding the world.

Research scientists are studying groundwater resources in order to understand the renewability of the source and how people can use it sustainably towards a green revolution in Africa.

‘We don’t want to repeat some of the mistakes during the green revolution that has taken place in Asia, where people opted to use groundwater, then groundwater was overused and we ended up with a problem of sustainability,’ said Richard Taylor, the principal investigator and a professor of Hydrogeology at University College London. Scientists are learning how and when different major aquifers recharge, how they respond to different climatic shocks and extremes, and they are already looking for appropriate ways of boosting groundwater recharge for more sustainability.

Using the Guinea Savannah predominantly for agriculture will inevitably, as all agriculture does, bring some environmental costs, but agriculture can also benefit the environment. This ecosystem is delicate and it needs to be kept in balance.

People attribute Africa’s problem to overpopulation yet most parts of Africa are not densely populated at all with much lower density rates than many states in America. Yet there are those in the ecological movement who tend to focus on the population issue and concentrate on family planning. Hunger is not Africa’s inescapable destiny and it can be eliminated.

There is no such thing as benevolent capitalism. Socialists know that under capitalism attempts to change the way food is produced so as to fill the empty bellies of Africans will be thwarted by the international trading system and foiled by the national ruling class. But this land is our land and should be used to feed the people and not the greed of shareholders in Wall Street, the City of London or Shanghai.

What is required is the democratic self-empowerment of the workers to replace the exploitative global economic system of capitalism by socialism so as to be in a position to genuinely satisfy the food needs of the people. This is no fantasy but a practical, revolutionary proposition to live in a world without waste, want or war, and in which each person benefits from sharing in the fruits of the Earth. Hunger is not Africa’s inescapable destiny but it can only be eliminated by ending the capitalist system.


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