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The mother of all famines.

Once again the media is presenting us with images of the mother of all famines – stretching from Yemen to Somalia, to Sudan and South Sudan, to the Central African Republic, to northern Nigeria and, most recently, to Gaza.

It’s a bad famine but there have been bad famines in the

not-so-distant past – the great Ethiopian one in 1985 which triggered the rock star, Bob Geldorf, to organise a massive world-wide popular response. (I remember running with tens of thousands of other campaigners in London’s Hyde Park to raise money.)

Before that, in 1974 at the World Food Conference, there was a real

feeling that the world was running out of food and dramatic new

policies must be put in place by the richer countries.

They were and much progress was made. Between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of children under five who had stunted growth fell from 33% to 22% of the world’s children, according to UNICEF.  People who are still underfed are less severely so. 45 million children suffer from malnutrition- that is one in three of children under 5. In Africa it is more than that.

Increased food production is happening all over the place. The world over the Gross Production Value of cereals is increasing by 6.25% a year.

In Rwanda peasant farmers produced in 2015 792,000 tons of grain which was more than three times as much as in 2000. Last year grain production was 500,000 tons, a 11% increase. In Ethiopia the area planted to irrigated-wheat increased from 5000 hectares to over 650,000 hectares in 2022/23. Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya have all increased their harvest by 50%.

If one deducts from the African statistics the famine in parts of east Africa and northern Nigeria then African progress looks especially good.

West Africa in particular has shown rapid improvement in food

production. In Nigeria, for all its economic woes and its low growth rate, agriculture is doing well, growing far faster than the population. It is more important than the oil sector in terms of value but oil remains the biggest filler of government coffers so gets all the politicians’ and media’s attention.

Growth in national income in sub-Saharan Africa is slowly but surely accelerating. Africa, like most parts of the world, was hit by the Great Recession and Covid but most countries have dealt with falling agricultural commodity prices and smaller foreign markets with some success. It is in a strong position to take advantage of the present world recovery. Some African countries continue to grow all along at around 5% a year- some at 7%, including Rwanda and Ivory Coast. They

didn’t miss a beat.

Agriculture for the foreseeable future will employ a majority of

workers. It is mainly peasant agriculture working poor soils in

difficult and uncertain weather conditions. Africa does not have the great fertile river basins of Asia whose fertility comes from the silt washed down through the ages from areas where tectonic activity produced mountains rich in nutrients. Nor does it have a water table near the surface, making bore holes more difficult. Much of the interior of Africa is barely worth farming. Only about 4% of arable land is irrigated.

The Green Revolution has made inroads but much more slowly than it did in Asia which only has two main crops, rice and wheat. Africa has a dozen food crops and each has needed its own specialist development, along with the fight against plant and animal diseases which are much more prevalent than elsewhere. Nevertheless, one sees these days an increase in the dissemination of improved seeds.

Other aspects of technology are also making an impact. The mobile phone is number one. Already some African countries have millions. In Kenya, which has pioneered applications that the rich countries have followed belatedly, has for a long time now used phones to enable peasants to purchase credit for fertiliser and other inputs, to receive information on market prices thus cutting down the influence of middlemen, for migrants in the cities to send money home for investment, for nurses to reach remote patients and for consumers to pay with electronic money. Not least, as in India, for subsidies to

the poor to be distributed directly without the graft of middlemen.

Perhaps the greatest single aid to improving agriculture and

increasing national incomes is to diminish war.

Between 1970 and the end of the century war was all-consuming in many countries. These days there are remnants of war in eastern Congo, there is a terrorist war in Somalia and a civil war in South Sudan. But, overall, there is little war today.

The poor are not running to stay still, they are running to make progress.


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