Famine is still a threat

Opinion by Göran Djurfeldt, senior Professor at Department of Sociology


Swedish pension funds should invest in Africa! This was the call of Swedish Minister for Finance Anders Borg in summer 2014. The world’s image of Africa is indeed shifting. Not long ago, the general view was one of pessimism. Africa, and African agriculture in particular, were regarded as a lost cause. Total aid to agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa sank to a trickle – bearing in mind that this is the continent most affected by hunger and malnutrition.

Around the millennium, things started to change: pessimism about the future of Africa was transformed into optimism. Since then, a number of African countries have been among the world’s fastest growing economies. This has also caused Swedish fund managers to start to view Africa as the continent of the future.

The Afrint group is made up of social sciences researchers in Lund and colleagues in nine African countries. The group has monitored the development of agriculture in Africa since 2002. Around 80 villages in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, and almost 3 000 farming households, have been visited two or three times by the researchers. How well-founded is the new optimism with regard to agriculture and food provision?

So far, we have seen few signs of fundamental change in the villages. Of course the good times are noticeable: the farmers are better paid for their crops and production is increasing. They are even giving up less profitable activities such as small-scale commerce – for example, selling tomatoes from a basket at the roadside – in order to invest in their own land and production for the market. The farmers listen to signals from the market and are eager to earn money. But is this development sustainable? It is doubtful.

“It is too early to speak of an African green revolution.”

Africa has seen such shifts before. When prices and demand for their products rise for different reasons, the small farmers are not slow to respond. So far, such good times have been short-lived and have been followed by periods of low prices and stagnating production. The eighties and nineties brought a long period of recession for African agriculture, with low prices and massive dumping of agricultural surpluses from the EU and the US that cut out local farmers from domestic markets. This is one of the most important reasons why African food production developed so feebly during the late 20th century, unlike in Asia and Latin America, where production rose, including per capita.

In Asia, the Green Revolution eliminated the threat of famine. No equivalent took place in Africa. Famine is still a threat: at the time of writing, alarm bells are ringing in South Sudan and Somalia. Last year Niger and other countries in the Sahel were threatened by famine. Next year it may be southern Africa that is affected.

The new optimism about Africa could prove unfounded as regards agriculture, warn the researchers in the Afrint group. Firstly, we have not yet seen economic forces strong enough to spur technological developments in agriculture. It is too early to speak of an African green revolution. Secondly, the specialisation of agriculture is moving slowly for the same reason. Thirdly – and most importantly – food security and production need to become political priorities. Aid providers have increased their investments in agriculture again and several African governments have begun reorganising their agriculture and trade policies in order to favour small-scale agriculture. However, no effects have been seen on the ground as yet.

Small-scale farmers continue to grow their maize or cassava on their impoverished land. If there is a likelihood of good payment, they can plough and cultivate some more land. If they don’t make a profit, they can always take their basket of tomatoes and sit at the roadside again. It is unlikely Swedish pension funds will be able to change this.






About the Green Revolution

The Green Revolution was a package of high-yield seed, subsidised artificial fertiliser and pesticides, and infrastructure and credit. Today, researchers are working on the Green Revolution 2.0, which will combine high yield with sustainability from an environmental and climate perspective.

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