Food insecurity has long been a devastating problem that hundreds of millions of Africans have endured for decades. In the late 1960s, one million people died of starvation in Nigeria during the Biafran war. In the late 1970s, food shortages and hunger in Ethiopia triggered by a natural disaster cost the lives of 1 million Africans. These occurrences continued in the ’80s and 90s, and only in the past decade and a half the number of people living in extreme food insecurity finally began decreasing.
But today, the war in Ukraine threatens to send the continent into yet another episode of famine and deprivation.
Last year, before the current crisis began, Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 193 million people considered acutely food insecure worldwide, according to a report by the United Nations and the European Union. Now, food insecurity is on the rise, with entire countries suffering a dire combination of troubled global supply chains, Covid-19 economic effects, worsening climate conditions, political instability, and more.
“This Ukraine war’s impact is overlapping with a crisis that has already been unfolding in some African countries,” Abebe Haile-Gabriel, assistant director-general of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its representative for Africa, told Reuters. “We have a very grim outlook going forward.” Mr. Haile-Gabriel has a valid point as Ukraine holds a dominant role in the continent’s food reality. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, at least 14 African countries import half of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, almost half the continent depends on imports for more than a third of their grain.
In the western hemisphere, higher food prices often mean families forgo luxuries yet can maintain a proper (if not always healthy) duet. In developing nations, and especially across Africa, where some of the poorest people in the world reside, higher food prices mean that many will not be able to afford even one decent meal a day. With a visible food crisis in sight, millions will be in danger of malnutrition and extreme poverty.
The current situation raises an important question – Why is the continent with 60% of the world’s arable land unable to feed itself?
Only 6% of arable lands are adequately irrigated
Africa’s agriculture sector depicts one of the biggest dissonances in the world. On the one hand, the continent holds more than 60% of global arable lands. On the other hand, only 6% of these lands, some 13 million hectares, are properly irrigated. Agriculture in Africa has a massive social and economic footprint – according to McKinsey, more than 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is smallholder farmers, and about 23 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP comes from agriculture. But albeit crucial on all social and economic levels, most smallholder farmers rely on rainwater, using small dams, rivers, streams, and wells to boost production. The current situation leads to multiple countries being heavily reliant on agriculture for employment and GDP but are importing most of their food due to extremely low productivity. With draughts, floods, and other extreme weather conditions wreaking havoc for the past decade, the latest crisis in Ukraine is only adding gas to a massive fire. As Africa’s population growth rates, some of the highest in the world, predict 2.3 billion people on teh continent by 2050 (25% of the future global population), this outstanding issue must be dealt with, or hundreds of millions will be doomed to uninhabitable conditions.
There are many ways in which technology and supply chain advancements could change Africa’s agriculture sector, with better seeding, weather monitoring, and other developments that are already available for use. Yet, the first frontier of solving the sector’s low productivity lies in proper irrigation. Water is the life source of all crops, and without them, no technological improvements would do. To that end, an easy solution that combines both efficiency and renewable energy is available and ready to be used and scaled quickly and affordably – solar irrigation systems.
Solar Irrigation is already changing lives
In recent years, solar-based irrigation solutions have been slowly taking over old, outdated methods, offering a more sustainable, affordable fix. “Before, we used a generator and petrol to fuel it, costly and not even half as beneficial,” says Mukamparaye Jeanne from Kivomo in rural Rwanda, who has been using Ignite’s solar-based pumps since 2019.
Solar-based water pumps have been found to increase yields by up to 3 times, increase the harvesting season by 1.5, and increase household income by up to 75%. “We used to sell 200kg, and now it is 500kg”. Said Jeanne, 63, who lives with her husband and 4 children. The family has a farm, and they grow Irish potatoes, beans, cassavas, and maize. For their 6-people household, like many others in the region, every increase in productivity and income is significant, and every growth in yields can affect the food security of their entire community.
Throughout the past decade, multiple researchers have focused on the subject of irrigation across the SSA region, with many coming to the same conclusions – investments in irrigation can contribute to poverty reduction and enhance food security through several impact pathways, including higher crop yield, higher food production, higher income and consumption, gains in employment, higher wage earnings, women’s empowerment through female employment, lower food prices, year-round food availability, augmentation of household assets, public infrastructure, education and health, and greater human prosperity. According to McKinsey, as much as $65 billion in investments could be needed in irrigation to fulfill Africa’s agricultural promise. With billions of lives on the line, investment must be done as soon as possible, and through the most promising, cost-effective solutions.
The writer is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa and the Middle East.