The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that globally, 925 million people were undernourished in 2010. In sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the highest demographic growth in the world, 239 million people continue to suffer from severe hunger, representing a staggering 30 percent of its total population. Given that poverty and vulnerability to hunger are strongly interrelated, food insecurity most dramatically affects the poor in both rural areas and urban centers. While the proportion of undernourished people varies widely at the country level, many of the current and predicted challenges to ensuring food availability, food access and food adequacy for all are similar across the continent.
One of the biggest challenges predicted to affect food security in Africa is climate change. Due to the fact that 95 percent of Africa’s agriculture is rainfed, the already fragile agricultural sector is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Higher temperatures and an increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as droughts and floods, eventually lead to a decline in agricultural output. The ability of African states to reduce vulnerability and strengthen the resilience of their agricultural sectors appears to be hampered. Major factors contributing to this are limited human and institutional capacity, and a lack of appropriate policy coordination and coherence.
At the same time, there is an intensifying worldwide scramble for Africa’s fertile land. National governments and private companies from industrialised and emerging economies buy or lease vast tracts of land across the continent to grow crops for food and fuel in order to meet growing demands at home. In some cases, land is obtained under non-transparent and fraudulent circumstances. Proponents of these ‘land grabs’ insist that the millions of dollars of foreign investment involved will develop local infrastructure, facilitate transfer of skills and technology, create jobs, alleviate poverty and help to ensure food security in host countries. But the reality, critics claim, more often reflects destroyed livelihoods of small farmers, forced relocations of rural communities, poor working conditions and environmental degradation.
If this trend is left unchecked, uncertain climatic conditions, coupled with population growth, political mismanagement and agricultural commodification, are likely to cause extremely volatile food prices in the coming decades. The global food crisis of 2007/8, during which prices of many staple foods doubled, led to riots in more than thirty countries and an additional one hundred million people starving worldwide. However, this might have been a mere warning sign of what is yet to come.
By looking at case studies from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the authors in this issue of Perspectives examine some of these complex problems and suggest appropriate measures for ensuring food security, fighting hunger and promoting sustainable approaches to natural resources management. While it has to be acknowledged that there are many possible answers to this multidimensional crisis, the articles gathered here clearly demonstrate that there is no silver bullet. Instead, tailor-made solutions that are inclusive, responsive to the needs of the poor, and mindful of existing knowledge and local realities are more likely to bring about success in the fight against hunger in Africa.