Africa's 200 Million Empty Plates

When the U.N. ponders the continent's ills and their tragic consequences, a sorry list of contributing factors needs to be on the table

By Paul Magnusson

"Children are starving in Africa."

American parents have uttered the same phrase for decades to persuade their kids to finish dinners rather than waste precious food. Yet the simple statement has remained depressingly valid year after year.

Africa perpetually seems to offer examples of how benighted a continent can be. This year, a civil war in Sudan triggers homelessness, starvation, and despair; a despot in Zimbabwe sacrifices the poor on the altar of his political ambitions; a drought and a locust invasion threatens the children of Niger.

These will be the latest crises to occupy the U.N. Millennium Summit when the world body meets Sept. 14 in New York. But the underlying problems remain the same: Africa's increasing inability to feed its people.


  Food security has been on the decline since 1970 in sub-Sahara Africa, with the number of malnourished children and adults growing from 88 million to an estimated 200 million by 2001, according to an Aug. 12 report from the International Food Policy Research Institute.

If current trends continue, the most vulnerable population, kids under five, would be hit hardest. The youngest group of malnourished children would climb from 28 million to more than 33 million. Under slightly more pessimistic assumptions, the figure would grow to 55 million by 2025.

What's holding Africa back? Many things, say the authors:

• Governments are rife with "corruption, collusion, and nepotism." War and insecurity discourage investment which could lead to higher crop yields, while starvation inevitably leads to more conflict.

• AIDS is decimating the population. It's the leading cause of death among adults. An estimated 2.3 million died of the disease in 2003, while another 27 million are thought to have contracted the HIV virus that causes AIDS. When adults contract it, households are less able to pay for or produce food, money goes toward medical and funeral costs, and children are left orphans.

By 2020, the U.N. estimates that AIDS will kill 20% or more of the population working in agriculture in many southern African countries. When AIDS strikes a rural family, they often switch from labor-intensive, more nutritious foods, such as corn, to less nutritious varieties, such as root crops.

• Productive soil is fast disappearing. Soil quality is "classified as degraded" on 72% of arable land and 31% of pastureland, thanks to erosion and overuse, according to the report. Little fertilizer is available, with animal dung often diverted for use as fuel rather than to replenish soils.

• Poverty remains extreme, and it's growing. The number of those living on $1 a day or less climbed to 316 million in 2001, nearly doubling from 163 million in 1981. Few in this group can afford to buy adequate food.

• Rural areas lack infrastructure -- roads, bridges, telephones, electricity. All would help in marketing and transporting food. It would also facilitate exports, allowing African nations to earn hard currency that could be used for buying capital goods from the developed world.

• Investment in agriculture dropped from 6% of government budgets to 4.9% over the past two decades, the report says. The corresponding figure for Asia is 10%. Investment in research is needed to develop hardier crops and more productive farming methods, including genetically modified foods.

• Trade policies in the developed world make things worse for Africans growing the few crops that can be exported, such as peanuts, cotton, sugar, and cocoa. High tariffs in the developed world discourage such imports, while huge farm subsidies in the U.S., Europe, and Japan allow farmers there to undercut prices in Africa.

Trade liberalization in the developed world for agricultural goods could add $5 billion to Africa's yearly income, according to some estimates. "Those subsidies make it much more difficult for African farmers to compete with European and American farmers," says one of the report's authors, Mark W. Rosegrant, an agricultural economist.

• Too many African crops are dependent on rainfall rather than on irrigation. The result is drought-induced famines and soil erosion. Only 1% of farmland is irrigated, the report says.


  Despite the bad news, Rosegrant insists there are some positive trends in Africa that could revive its economy, which is overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture. Inflation has declined from 40% to the 10% range over the past decade, while budget deficits have shrunk from 5% of GDP to an average of 1% in the sub-Sahara region.

Some countries like South Africa and Zambia are serving as models for rural development. Under a best-case scenario, the number of hungry children under five could even drop down to 9 million by 2025.

"Many people think that all of Africa is a basket case, but that's just not the case," says Rosegrant. And with a little help from the developed world, maybe those pictures of starving children, and the dinner table exhortations not to waste food, will begin to disappear.

Magnusson is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington Bureau

Edited by Phil Mintz