Africa: Game changer for global food security

We are all too familiar with the many obstacles standing in the way of feeding the world by 2050, while facing both undernutrition and escalating rates of overnutrition.  In fact, often times the challenge seems quite daunting.  But, despite the global food and nutrition security challenge we’re facing, I’m hopeful.

I’m hopeful about our progress and the direction we’re headed.  But, I’m most hopeful about untapping Africa’s tremendous potential to curb global hunger and poverty – it’s a game changer.


Without question, the African continent has suffered its share of uphill battles when it comes to food and nutrition security.  Countries in southern Africa have faced grave chronic hunger and malnutrition due in part to an increasingly dry climate.  Only 4 percent of the continent’s cultivated land is irrigated as compared to 14 percent in Latin America and 37 percent in Asia, contributing to its drought conditions.  Many African country governments remain wary of new technologies and innovations, such as improved seed and genetically engineered crops, limiting the potential for farmers to increase agricultural productivity.  Poor infrastructure, including the lack of roads, bridges, ports, electricity, and storage, factors into significant postharvest waste and loss.  And, historical political instability and unrest across the continent has made it difficult for countries to focus their attention and resources on the agriculture sector.

As a result, Africa has largely lagged behind the world in agricultural development, despite being the home to 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land.

Thankfully, the continent is finally reaching its tipping point.  We’re seeing national debts decline, more peaceful elections, and after over two decades of little to no investment in African agriculture, national governments, country donors, the private sector, and international development organizations like the World Bank are playing a larger role in closing the agricultural development investment gap.

All of these factors are paving the way for Africa becoming the next breadbasket.  With better policies, new innovations, best practices and greater investment, African farmers are demonstrating their potential to bring about another Green Revolution. 

I’ve seen this firsthand through my work with many poor Millennium Villages throughout Africa.  Staple crop yields have tripled due to a combination of the best hybrids or varieties and the appropriate use of mineral fertilizers. Together with the development of village health facilities and improved water and sanitation, malaria prevalence has drastically decreased and stunting  of children under 2 years old has decreased from 50 to 30 percent.  Virtually all children are going to primary school where they receive a nutritious meal.  The number of trees in the villages are increasing, warehouses are being built to sell surpluses in bulk as required to enter a dynamic food value chain.  And, farming as a business is beginning to replace farming for subsistence.

Now also consider Nigeria, which has renewed its commitment to the agriculture sector.  Once one of the most promising agricultural producers worldwide, Nigeria is looking to reclaim its title.  By 2015, the country’s current agricultural program aims to boost food production by 20 million tons, create 3.5 million jobs in the agriculture and food-related industries, and become self-sufficient in rice production.

In Senegal and Ethiopia, risk mitigation and insurance tools are helping rural farmers to better manage climate shifts that are threatening crops and livestock.  Meanwhile, mobile technology solutions all over the country are connecting smallholder farmers to real-time information on market prices, weather, and pest outbreaks.  These mobile solutions enable the limited number of agricultural extension services on the continent to reach its farmers.

Not to mention, new models of farming are also emerging on the continent.  While there are concerns about the effects of, for example, large-scale farming and outgrower models in Africa, these projects can lead to new farming opportunities for smallholders and needed agricultural development.  For these models to be mutually beneficial, it will be important to partner with smallholder farmers to ensure land rights are not comprised, establish fair wages, and provide adequate support services and inputs.

This is the direction that Africa must continue to take to redefine its future.  Africa can become the model for the local tools, solutions, and practices needed to increase agricultural productivity and enhance the nutrition of crops and food around the world. 

But, realizing Africa’s agricultural potential will require continued investment from both domestic and international sources.  It will also require attention to hurdles, including limited human resources, political pressures, volatile food prices, and inadequate infrastructure.  And, country governments should work toward facilitating enabling policy and regulatory environments to encourage greater private sector investment in agricultural research and technology.  

As over forty leaders convene in Washington, DC for the first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, I urge continued focus on each of these challenges to catalyze agricultural development across the continent.  Achieving Africa’s food and nutrition security should be a goal shared by all of us.  After all, while the promise of a food and nutrition secure world may not have begun in Africa – Africa will be critical to achieving our success.  

Sanchez serves as director of the Agriculture and Food Security Center at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He is the 2002 World Food Prize laureate, a  MacArthur Fellow, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He was co-chair of the United Nations Millennium Project Hunger Task Force and director of the Millennium Villages Project from 2004 to 2010.