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Alleviating Poverty and Improving Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa

By: Daphne Tong Jia Min, Vaishakh Pillay

Research Head: Tan Chok Geow Editor: Sakshi Sanganeria

Illustration by Jasmine

Abstract The proportion of people living below the poverty line in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is the greatest compared to other developing regions. Due to the high rate of population growth and the increasing number of poor people, SSA faces the daunting challenge of increasing food security and alleviating poverty. Some of the common causes attributed to these challenges are low productivity of agricultural resources and regional conflicts. While there is some correlation between poverty and food security, they do not always move in unison., This article discusses the reasons why eradicating poverty and achieving food security through a single policy might not be possible, despite the untapped potential in SSA to produce greater agricultural output. The article concludes by acknowledging the severity of the problem, but highlighting that eradicating poverty must take priority over alleviating food security.


Currently, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the largest number and highest share of population that is food insecure. In 2019, SSA had an estimated 35.3 percent of its population food insecure; despite improvements, 22.5 percent are still projected to be food insecure in 2029 (USDA,2019). While SSA has untapped potential to produce two to three times more cereals and grains, adding 20 percent to the current worldwide of 2.6 billion tons (McKinsey, 2019), the question remains: why is food security low and why is it attributed to low productivity of agricultural resources, high population growth rates and regional conflicts? 1. Struggling with the challenges Currently, mechanisation levels on farms across Africa are very low. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Africa has less than two tractors per 1,000 hectares of cropland compared to 10 tractors per 1,000 hectares in South Asia and Latin America (UN,2019). Without mechanized agriculture, productivity suffers drastically. The large population size of the Sub-Saharan Africa region accounts for more than 950 million people, approximately 13% of the global population. By 2050, this share is projected to increase to almost 22% or 2.1 billion (FAO,2016). Furthermore, the rising urbanization and the growth of urban middle-class consumers in Africa could lead to $645 billion in growth in consumer spending between 2015 and 2025 and increase the demand for food (McKinsey, 2019). Central Africa of the SSA is one of the most food insecure- 65 percent of the population in 2019 lacked food security (USDA,2019). As a result of conflict and political instability, large numbers of people are displaced causing great obstacles to achieving the goal of food security. Half of the population of The Republic of Congo (ROC) is food insecure in 2019 as the country recovers from years of internal conflict. The country also faces additional demand as it is currently home to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Central African Republic (CAR). Exacerbated by the violent conflict and political instability, 76 percent of the population in CAR is food insecure in 2019 and DR Congo is projected to be the most food- insecure country due to conflict and political instability (USDA, 2019). All these factors contribute to market disruptions and poor access to agricultural land- leading to low food security.


In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), nearly all the food crops are produced by approximately 33 million smallholding farms (AGRA, 2016). African agriculture is dominated by these smallholdings, which are small plots of land owned by individuals or families with relatively low infrastructure and technological advancements. Coupled with the fact that yields in Africa are among the lowest in the world (Dzanku et al., 2015), it is theorised that if the gap between actual and potential yield can be reduced, smallholders will produce sufficient crops to meet their needs, as well as have enough surplus to sell for profit (Dercon and Gollin, 2014). This will lead to an increase in labour demand, both on farms and in the industrial sector. Together with the higher income for the farmers themselves, increased agricultural production becomes the catalyst for development, especially in rural areas (Sachs, 2005). 2. The difficult choice- eradicating poverty or eradicating food insecurity? Yet, the issue is not as straightforward as outlined above. Although the potential double benefit of eradicating poverty and achieving food security through agricultural intensification seems plausible, the reality is that there is no guarantee that smallholding farms can be the agents of change for rural transformation. One argument in support of this claim is discussed below. The small size of land available to smallholders restricts how much crop they can grow. Therefore, although the technology to increase yield by three to four times exists, it is hardly effective due to the lack of land. Furthermore, due to the region being almost exclusively irrigated through rain, (Dercon and Gollin, 2014), most farming households diversify their portfolios to include multiple income streams. Therefore, the smallholdings are less likely to invest heavily in technologies that are both knowledge and labour intensive (Glover et al., 2019). This results in the per capita income of the smallholders, and majority of the population, to remain below the World-Bank defined poverty line of US1.90 per day. It is self-evident that technological advancements in agricultural practices and their implementation can be a major driving force behind rural development in SSA. However, it is essential that the microeconomic climate is such that smallholders are willing to adopt such strategies. Alleviating poverty will greatly facilitate the building of such an environment and, therefore, will have to take priority over food security. Instead of focusing on investments, the policymakers in SSA should direct


efforts towards implementing new programmes to tackle the poverty issue, such as Conditional Cash Transfers (CCT) and food subsidies.


References 1. AGRA (2016) Africa agriculture status report 2016: progress towards agricultural transformation (Nairobi). Africa Agriculture Status Report 2016: Progress ... - AGRAagra.org › aasr2016 › public › assr 2. Dercon, S, Gilligan, DO, Hoddinott, J, et al. (2009) The impact of agricultural extension and roads on poverty and consumption growth in fifteen Ethiopian villages. American Journal of Agricultural Economics 91:1007–1021. The Impact of Agricultural Extension and Roads on Poverty ...www.jstor.org › stable 3. Dzanku, FM, Jirström, M, Marstorp, H (2015) Yield gap-based poverty gaps in rural Sub- Saharan Africa. World Development 67:336–362. Yield Gap-Based Poverty Gaps in Rural Sub-Saharan Africa ...www.researchgate.net › publication › 268752289_Yield_Gap-Based_Po... 4. Glover, D, Sumberg, J, Ton, G, et al. (2019) Rethinking technological change in smallholder agriculture. Outlook on Agriculture 48(3):169–180. Rethinking technological change in smallholder agriculture ...journals.sagepub.com doi › abs 5. Sachs, J (2005) The End of Poverty: How We Can Make It Happen in Our Lifetime. London: Penguin. The End of Poverty - Penguin Bookswww.penguin.co.uk › The End of Poverty 6. United States Department of Agriculture. (2019). International Food Security Assessment, 2019-2029. International Food Security Assessment, 2019-29 - USDA ERSwww.ers.usda.gov › publications › pub-details 7. Goedde, L., Ooko-Ombaka, A. and Pais, G. (2019). Winning in Africa’s agricultural market. McKinsey & Company. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/agriculture/our-insights/winning-in-africas- agricultural-market.


8. Bafana, B. (2019). Mechanizing agriculture is key to food security | Africa Renewal. Un.org. Available at: https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2019-july- 2019/mechanizing-agriculture-key-food-security.

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