More than any other region of the world, food production south of the Sahara is in crisis. High rates of population growth and little application of improved production technology resulted in declining per capita food production, escalating food deficits, and deteriorating nutritional levels, especially among the rural poor during the past two decades. While there was some indication during the 1990s that smallholder food production was beginning to turn around, this recovery is still very fragile.
Sub-Saharan Africa's extreme poverty, poor soils, uncertain rainfall, increasing population pressures, changing ownership patterns for land and cattle, political and social turmoil, shortages of trained agriculturalists, and weaknesses in research and technology delivery systems all make the task of agricultural development more difficult. But we should also realize that to a considerable extent, the present food crisis is the result of the neglect of agriculture by political leaders, even though agriculture provides the livelihood for 60% to 75% of the people in most African countries. Investments in agricultural research and education and in input distribution and food marketing systems have been woefully inadequate. Furthermore, many governments have pursued a policy of providing cheap food — often imported from abroad — for politically volatile urban dwellers at the expense of production incentives for farmers.
Many of the lowland tropical environments — especially the forest and transition areas — are fragile ecological systems with deeply weathered, acidic soils that lose fertility rapidly under repeated cultivation. Traditionally, slash-and-burn shifting cultivation and complex cropping patterns permitted low-yielding, but relatively stable, food production systems. Expanding populations and food requirements have pushed farmers onto more marginal lands, and also have led to a shortening in the bush/fallow periods previously used to restore soil fertility. With more continuous cropping on the rise, organic material and nitrogen are being rapidly depleted, while phosphorus and other nutrient reserves are slowly but steadily becoming depleted. This is having disastrous environmental consequences, such as serious erosion and weed invasions leading to impoverished fire-climax vegetations.
What is needed in African agriculture is a broader range of technological options. For the high-potential production areas with better moisture availability, soils, and access to markets, and especially for higher-value crops, the priority must be to get modern factors of production such as fertilizers, improved seeds, crop protection chemicals, and machinery into the hands of farmers, so that they can make the transformation from subsistence to commercial agriculture. However, for those poor farmers with extremely marginal production circumstances, the first priority should be to attain household food security. Since many of these areas have severely degraded environments, resource-improving social capital investments will be needed in soil fertility restoration, microscale water management, tree establishment, and livestock and forest/range rehabilitation. These practices lead to increased carbon sequestration, which can ameliorate the impact of global warming.
In many cases, because of their extreme lack of purchasing power and frequent remoteness from markets, low external input crop production technologies are likely to be the most appropriate. Once farmers have achieved household food security, they can then consider using additional external inputs to boost production and generate small surpluses to sell into the market.
The second step in many cases for such very poor farmers in low-potential areas is to develop off-farm employment opportunities for them, either within the area itself or somewhere else in the country. In many cases, the carrying capacity of the land simply will not support such large numbers of smallholder farmers. Thus, the solution to their poverty must be found outside of agriculture, with the land returning to permanent pastures and forests. This should have a favorable impact on the environment.
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