Knowledge for Development

Achieving Food Security

Author: Prof. Richard M. Mkandawire

Date: 10/09/2007


Although Africa has made significant strides poverty and hunger persist. The African Union (AU) estimates that 27 percent of Africans are under-nourished, representing a 2 percent decline since 1995. FAO (2004) reported that many sub-regions of Africa had made remarkable progress in reducing hunger, except in the Central African region, where the number of under-nourished people increased to 56% against 36% in the early 1990s (Table 1). Consequently, the estimated absolute number has risen from 176 million to 210 million; since Africa’s total population has increased from 589 million to 764 million over the same period.


Table 1: Performance of African Sub-Regions in Reducing Hunger
(in millions and percentages), 1990/92 – 2000/02



Number Persons Under-Nourished (millions) Percent Population Under-Nourished Percent Change in 10 Years
1990/92 2000/02 1990/92 2000/02
North 5.4 6.1 4 4 0
Central 22.7 45.2 36 55 + 19
East 76.4 86.2 46 40 - 6
Southern 34.1 35.7 48 40 - 8
West 37.2 36.4 21 16 - 5
Africa 175.8 209.6 29 27 - 2

Challenges to achieving food security in Africa Although there have been pockets of success in some countries in Africa, food security has remained unattainable for many. Agriculture has not been able to transform economies on the continent as has been the case in Asia and Latin America. The major bottlenecks in sustainable food security have been an increasing population; poverty (see also Box 1); resurgent conflicts and political upheavals; poor infrastructure; the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other debilitating diseases such as malaria; high external debts; soil degradation; increasing water scarcity and poor water use management; desertification; and climate change.

Box 1. Human Development Index in Sub-Saharan Africa

As a measure of the quality of human life, the human development index (HDI) for much of Africa has deteriorated over the past decades. UNDP (2006) reported that since 1990 HDI for Sub-Saharan Africa has stagnated, partly because of economic reversal but principally because of the catastrophic effect of HIV/AIDS on life expectancy. Eighteen countries have a lower HDI score today than in 1990—most in Sub-Saharan Africa. Today 28 of the 31 low human development countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In countries such as Chad, Malawi and Rwanda fewer than 40% of the children who enroll in school complete a full primary education cycle

Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region that has witnessed an increase both in the incidence of poverty and in the absolute number of poor. Some 300 million people there— almost half of the region’s population—live on less than $1 a day. While the world as a whole is on track for achieving the 2015 target of halving extreme income poverty, Sub-Saharan Africa is off track, as are many countries in other regions. Country-level data indicate that the 2015 goals will be missed by about 380 million people.

Source: UNDP (2006)

For example, during the period 1993 to 2003, Africa’s rate of population growth has been higher than the rate of food production, while the continent’s share of world trade declined for nine of ten of its major agricultural exports during the period. African agricultural production has to increase by at least four to six percent per annum on a sustained basis to meet the food needs of a rapidly growing African population that is expected to increase from about 900 million today to 1.3 billion by the Year 2020.

Threats of food insecurity to overall Africa’s development
The hungry are the poorest of the poor, and hence reducing hunger must be among the first steps towards the achievement of the Millennium Development Goal to halve poverty by 2015. The presence of very large numbers of poor and hungry people, marginalized from the work force and from markets, not only acts as a brake on economic growth and development but, if not addressed provides a breeding ground for social instability and conflict.

Strategies to address the problems
As long as hunger persists in Africa, it is unlikely that the continent can attain the high rates of economic growth necessary to address poverty reduction and enable the continent to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Elimination of hunger constitutes one of the key development goals in Africa. Therefore, NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), which was adopted by African Heads of State and Governments in 2003, guides African states towards achieving a broad-based agriculture-led economic growth. The AU Commission’s Department of Rural Economy and Agriculture’s (DREA) Strategic Plan of Action aims to initiate and promote policies and strategies for developing Africa’s agriculture and the livelihoods of its people within this common CAADP framework.

While a national increase in food production generates more food and income, it does not always deliver food for everyone. Food production, food affordability (dependent on food and non-food prices and wages) and food access (which can be affected by gender, age or illness) are also important. Many regions have progressed towards achieving food security, notably South Asia since the Green Revolution (Mkandawire and Albright (2006) (1).

The CAADP framework Many problems facing Africa today are due to the decreasing investment in the agriculture sector by African countries over the last 20 years. The OECD estimates that the global value of assistance to agriculture decreased from US$6.2 billion to US$2.3 billion between 1980 and 2002. Over the same period, official development assistance increased by 65%, and the proportional share of agriculture declined even more - from 17% in 1982 to 3.7% in 2002. This was because it was felt agriculture had failed to deliver its goals; therefore, more attention was directed towards the social sectors, such as education and health. Since 2001, the situation has changed remarkably since African leaders and their development partners have again recognised the importance of agricultural development to achieving sustainable economic growth, food security and poverty reduction.

The CAADP has four priorities (pillars) for investment and action:

  • Pillar 1: Extending the area under sustainable land management and reliable water control systems, such as increasing access to irrigation.
  • Pillar II: Increasing market access through improved rural infrastructure and other trade-related interventions
  • Pillar III: Increasing food supply and reducing hunger across the region by increasing smallholder farm productivity and improving responses to food emergency crises
  • Pillar IV: Improving agricultural research, greater dissemination of appropriate technologies through improved technology delivery systems and increased support to farmers to adopt these

There is a growing consensus in Africa that the inter-linked problems of hunger and poverty can best be solved by using a “multi-track” approach. This entails improving agricultural productivity and increasing incomes derived from rural livelihoods and putting in place policies and institutions aimed at empowering farmers, pastoralists and fisher folks to enable them to get out of the poverty trap. Therefore, the centre-piece of CAADP pillars is increasing food supply while at the same time reducing poverty, through a pragmatic partnership between the public and the private sectors, as well as the public and the producers.

Given Africa’s susceptibility to drought, NEPAD is calling for governments to increase their investment in irrigation, to enable farmers to improve their capacity to harvest water and expansion of land under irrigated agriculture.

Agriculture productivity in Africa has also been hampered by low use of such inputs as fertilizer. Average fertilizer application in the continent has declined from around 35 Kg/ha during the 1980s, to the current approximate 26 Kg/ha. This has been caused by a general rise in unit input costs and inadequate credit services for the rural poor producers.

In the area of science, technology and innovations, Africa has also lagged behind the rest of the world. Weak agricultural research for development (RD), coupled with the general fragmentation of the innovation systems, has resulted in low agricultural yields in Africa. Therefore, NEPAD’s CAADP Pillar IV calls for increased investment in agricultural research, technology development and dissemination. Already, there are signs of success in some sectors, such as cassava and rice (Box 2).

Box 2. Science, technology and innovation: NERICA rice

After years of breeding work by scientists from WARDA (the West African Rice Development Agency in Cote d’Ivoire), assisted by IRRI (the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines), a very important breakthrough was made in crossing a very hardy old African rice variety (oryza glaberrima) with more frail, but higher yielding, Asian rice (oryza sativa). The resulting new varieties, referred to under the name of “NERICA” (New Rice for Africa) rice, combine the best features of both “parents”: resistance to drought and pests; higher yields, even with little irrigation or fertilizer; and more protein content than other types of rice. About 10 varieties of NERICA rice are being used by farmers, mostly in West African uplands or rain-fed production areas. Even without fertilizer Nerica varieties can yield 1.5 to 2.5 tons of rice per hectare, compared with an average of 1 ton or less for traditional varieties. With even modest doses of fertilizer, yields increase to 3.5 tons per hectare. In addition NERICA has characteristics which make it very popular with women farmers since variety characteristics result in freeing up substantial amounts of the labour required by traditional varieties. 

Source: WARDA 

Better infrastructure
Improving Africa’s road and transport networks will increase agricultural productivity. Poor infrastructure in rural areas in Africa reduces farmers’ access to markets and agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers; as well as movement of food from surplus to deficit areas. Improving transport between cities and rural areas will help farmers benefit from new technologies and improved access to agricultural inputs as well as increase their incomes if they are able to sell their crops at market.

Is CAADP a solution for food security in Sub-Saharan Africa? It is important to assess the potential for CAADP to address Africa’s food security problem from political and institutional perspectives. CAADP is an African-conceived and owned vision for economic growth and poverty reduction and has the backing of African leaders. No previous development efforts in sub-Saharan Africa have had this level of political endorsement and a continent-wide focus. CAADP tackles few completely new issues but provides the first comprehensive and credible effort to address them all in an integrated and effective process. Underlying the operationalization of the CAADP is the need for partnership at all levels. Alongside partners such as farmers organizations, national and international agri-business operators, and the Regional Economic Communities, NEPAD can coordinate African governments and help ensure there is coherence and coordinated action on key regional policies such as trade, food safety standards and the control of transboundary pests and diseases. The key challenge for NEPAD is to balance national and regional level priorities so that both receive adequate support and to ensure that implementation progresses rapidly in addition to stakeholder consultation and policy dialogue.

Prof. Richard M. Mkandawire is an agriculture advisor for NEPAD.


  1. Mkandawire R,M. and K. Albright. 2006. Achieving Food Security: What next for Sub-Saharan Africa? id21 insight

Further reading

Status of Food Security and Prospects for Agricultural Development in Africa, African Union: Addis Ababa, 2006

Looking Ahead: Long term Prospects for Africa’s Agricultural Development and Food Security, IFPRI 2020 Discussion Paper 41, International Food Policy Research Institute: Washington by Mark W. Rosegrant, Sarah A.Cline, Weibo Li, Timothy B. Sulser and Rowena A. Valmonte-Santos, August 2005

Official Development Assistance to Agriculture, UK Department for International Development Working Paper, 2004

Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, New Partnership For Africa's Development (NEPAD), November 2002