Why is Africa the least food-secure continent in the world?

Education and economic development should solve the continent’s agricultural problem. Both of these areas are trending in the right direction

Africa hosts 60 per cent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and agriculture is the single biggest employer of Africans with more than 80 per cent of the working-age population in some countries working on the land. Why then is Africa the least food-secure continent in the world? Why is Africa a net importer of food? Why have the most recent famines occurred in Africa?

The issue of African agriculture has been considered by Paul Akiwumi, director of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) African Division, and Kenyan journalist Mathew Otieno in MercatorNet.

Akiwumi notes that about 45 per cent of the world’s land suitable for sustainable agricultural production expansion is found in Africa, but this is combined with the lowest rates of agricultural productivity per worker. And Otieno reports that African farmers, on average, are the poorest and least educated in the world, with the least ability to afford fertilisers, irrigation, quality seeds, farm equipment, cutting-edge knowledge and other inputs necessary for productive agriculture.

Some African farms with access to capital and professional expertise are very productive. Kenyan horticulture compares well with highly professional Dutch horticulture. However, when fertiliser prices more than tripled recently many Kenyan farmers abandoned its use, until the government introduced subsidies.


Most African agriculture still farms cash crops for export. Akiwumi outlines how the Côte d’Ivoire devotes 15 per cent of its land to cocoa production for export, growing 40 per cent of the world’s supply. But the country receives little benefit from this. Its labour-intensive agriculture attracts little investment and most of the 5 million people who farm cocoa – 20 per cent of the population – remain in chronic poverty.

Akiwumi also reports that large areas of African land are under long-term leases to foreign countries and private companies for extraction of resources and agricultural goods for export. The scale of these land deals is unknown but there is cause for concern – large-scale land deals totalled 22 million hectares from 2005-2017 and are rising. Foreign firms argue that land leases contribute to local development but case studies have shown otherwise.

Increased demand for agrofuels over the past 20 years has escalated the stakes. Agrofuel plantations displace communities, add little employment, exacerbate rural poverty and harm the environment through practices such as deforestation. In the absence of strong property rights and resource governance systems, commercial investments in agriculture can lead to displacement, loss of jobs, access and tenure rights to land for the local population.

Africa’s colonial legacy is often cited to explain its low food production. For example, an article in the Conversation published in July 2021 argues that African farmers grew hardy crops suited to their local environment prior to colonisation but then colonialism directed farmers to grow export crops such as tea, coffee and cocoa rather than food crops. However, while colonialism undoubtedly left a debilitating mark, Otieno argues it should not be used to excuse Africa’s responsibilities for its present woes, pointing out that many east and south Asian countries were also colonised but very few are now food-insecure.

Most African countries are net importers of food – in eastern Africa 84 per cent of demand for wheat is met by imports. Some argue that government subsidies to farmers in developed countries distort global markets and suppress African agriculture. But the principal imported foods in Africa – rice, maize and wheat – come from countries such as India, Brazil and Ukraine that don’t significantly subsidise their farmers.

It is also argued that the African smallholder farmers, responsible for 70 per cent of African food production, cannot compete with the very large farms characteristic of the developed world. But Otieno points out that the Netherlands, a huge exporter of agricultural goods, is dominated by small farms. The highly productive agriculture in so many countries beyond Africa is based on highly professional practices, employing only a small percentage of the national labour force – in the Netherlands less than 2 per cent of national labour force is employed in agriculture.

Otieno concludes that the reason why Africa cannot feed itself is largely down to poverty and underdevelopment. Therefore, education and economic development should solve Africa’s agricultural problem and both of these areas are trending in the right direction. Otieno predicts the agricultural sector will professionalise gradually as farming is perceived as an appropriate livelihood for educated people with access to capital and knowledge. In time, Africa will not only feed itself but will become a strong food exporter.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork