A study by a U.S.-based food policy institute predicts more and more Africans will go hungry in the next 20 years unless there are sweeping policy changes in areas of investment, aid and agriculture.
For one reason or another, more than a dozen African countries are unable to feed their populations. Poor governance, inattention to agricultural production, AIDS, drought, armed conflict and last year's locust plague have combined to create what aid specialists consider Africa's worst food shortages in decades.
Mark Rosegrant is a senior analyst at the United States-based International Food Policy Research Institute, which last week issued a report predicting hunger in Africa is set to rise. He says unless changes are made, tens of millions of Africans will experience severe food shortages over the next two decades.
The institute's report says one of the best ways to meet the U.N. Millennium Development Goals of cutting the number of hungry in half by 2015, would be to open markets to Africa's food imports.
"It would be much better to have significant trade liberalization on the part of the developed world, which would open their agricultural or food markets to imports from Africa," said Mr. Rosegrant. "Then Africa would gain over $5 billion annually from full trade liberalization. So, [there're] very significant benefits from opening the markets."
Mr. Rosengrants says emergency food aid helps in the short term, but does little to solve Africa's chronic food shortages.
"It's certainly helping in these emergency situations, but it doesn't really address the long-term fundamentals which we're trying to get at," he added.
The institute's researchers used computer modeling to analyze the effect of trade, aid and agricultural policies to produce the 20-year food forecast for Africa. In the gloomiest of scenarios, the institute predicts the number of malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa would climb from 33 million today to 55 million in 2025.
John Mutunga, head of Kenya's National Federation of Agricultural Producers, says African governments are partly to blame for food shortages.
He says in Kenya, where persistent drought in some places leads to chronic food shortages, the government has done little to help farmers irrigate their land.
"The government really does not have very clear, you know, serious irrigation policy," said Mr. Mutunga. "Their policy is not right. We are not seeing that. I don't think we can get sufficient food from the country if we don't explore all the options. We are also asking why the government is not focusing on this."
Nancy Mutunga, no relation to John, is the Kenya representative for (the Global Information and Early Warning System for Food and Agriculture,) a U.N.-backed agency that monitors the world's crop production and issues warnings of impending food shortages. Her agency's world map of food supply marks two-thirds of Africa as either facing an unfavorable food outlook or food emergency.
She agrees with the food institute's recommendation that countries' agricultural policies should focus on women, who form the backbone of the farm labor force in Africa.
"Women, being so close to the problem, are very well able to identify exactly what projects they need to have," said Ms. Mutunga. "For example, they spend four to five hours walking a day in search of water And the amount of water they come up with is just enough to use for one day."
With a small loan to buy a donkey and a cart, Ms. Mutunga suggests, a woman could start a small business hauling water for other women in the community, enabling them to spend more time with their children.
In a more upbeat note, Mr. Rosegrant says there are some steps being taken inside and outside Africa to help farmers.
"There are some promising signs. For example, at the G8 meeting the G8 leaders agreed to give out $40 billion of debt relief to African nations and also to double official developmental assistance from $25 billion to $50 billion over the next 10 years. In addition, African leaders themselves have pledged a doubling of agricultural-sector expenditures as part of the NEPAD process. That would be another big increment. So, if those funds could be acquired quickly and invested productively, then that would be a big step forward."
Still, it takes shocking pictures of starving children, such as those seen on television from Niger over the past few weeks, to focus the world's attention on starvation in Africa. Agricultural experts warn getting such pictures off TV screens will take a lot of work, both by Africans and the international community.