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After years of steady decline, the pace of global hunger is creeping up, and parts of Africa today are in the midst of the worst food crisis since World War II. Averting future famines on the continent is possible, but only if regional and global donors make the development of smallholder farming a high priority.
After falling for more than a decade, the number of hungry people in the world is rising once again. This year was marked by the worst global food crisis since World War II, with South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, and Nigeria either experiencing famine or teetering on the brink. More than 20 million people in those four countries alone remain severely food-insecure, and the United Nations estimates that $1.8 billion in immediate humanitarian aid is needed.
Political instability and conflict have contributed heavily to this food insecurity, but insufficient food production has also likely heightened tensions and exacerbated hunger. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where three of the four countries on the verge of famine are located, crop yields have long lagged behind the rest of the world, owing to poor farm inputs, such as low-quality seeds and fertilizer.
Investing in agriculture is one of the most effective ways to end hunger and improve political stability. There are 50 million smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, and they support many millions more. Countries on the continent that have invested heavily in agricultural development and smallholder farmers have been successful at avoiding famine.
Consider the example of Ethiopia, which experienced one of the worst famines in history in the mid-1980s. An estimated one million people died during that crisis, which was caused by a combination of conflict and drought, and it took many years for the country to recover.
Today, Ethiopia is peaceful, but drought conditions have returned. In 2016, the country suffered its driest growing season in 50 years. And yet Ethiopia did not experience famine last year. There were hungry people, to be sure, but disaster was avoided. Oxfam attributes this to the fact that the government was better prepared to deliver food and water to millions. The country has also vastly improved its farming infrastructure, and new irrigation and drinking water systems provide rural areas with easy access to clean, safe water sources.
For more than a decade, the Ethiopian government has made agricultural development a top priority. In 2010, it created the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, a public entity dedicated to boosting the productivity of the agriculture sector. As the noted British author and Africa researcher Alex de Waal has noted, “Politics creates famine, and politics can stop it.” Ethiopia proves his point. While domestic and international contributions still flow during relief efforts, it is Ethiopia’s long-term investments that have increased the country’s resilience.
An increase in strategic agricultural investments, from African donors or international sources, could help other countries in the region reap similar rewards.
Climate change is making such investments even more urgent, as extreme weather events – both flooding and droughts – are becoming more common throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.
Even without government support, however, farmers can take modest and cost-effective steps immediately to mitigate climate shocks. By using smart farming techniques such as drought-resistant seeds, intercropping, composting, and crop diversification, farmers can blunt the effects of extreme weather at very low costs.
Trees are one of the most effective tools we have for fighting climate change, and they also make economic sense for small farmers. A farmer who invests $2 in seedlings can make a profit of more than $80 in ten years, when some of the full-grown trees can be cut and sold. Trees also benefit the environment while they are growing – by absorbing carbon, improving soil health, and preventing erosion.
Farmers who have an asset base of trees, livestock, or cash generated by selling crop surpluses are better able to withstand weather shocks. And, as our organization is currently demonstrating in six African countries, farmers can build their asset bases with training and financial support. That is why we believe African governments and bilateral donors should deepen their investments in programs that provide farmers with the skills to produce long-term crops, especially trees, sustainably. Inexpensive practices – such as planting crops in rows, weeding correctly, and applying fertilizer in micro-doses – are also proven methods to increase crop production dramatically.
With the effects of climate change expected to intensify in coming years, Africa’s smallholder farmers must prepare now for a more turbulent future. The United States has historically been the world’s largest donor to global food security programs, but the future of this leadership role under President Donald Trump is uncertain. While global food security initiatives enjoy bipartisan support in the US Congress, the Trump administration’s proposed foreign aid budget recommends deep funding cuts to these programs.
As US support waivers, African and European governments, foundations, institutional donors, and practitioners must be ready to step in to help African farmers build long-term resiliency. Investing in agriculture is the most efficient way to improve food security in Africa, while ensuring that people on the front lines of the fight against climate change can maintain thriving economies and sustainable, healthy environments.
Only through careful planning, and by following the lead of countries like Ethiopia, can Sub-Saharan Africa address the underlying causes of hunger. Although food security is a complex problem to solve, preventing future famines doesn’t have to be.
Stephanie Hanson is Senior Vice President of Policy and Partnerships at One Acre Fund.
Whitney McFerron is a writer and editor at One Acre Fund.