Instead of starving, Africa could become the world’s next major food source

July 21, 2014

The July issue of National Geographic magazine features “the biggest story in global agriculture: the unlikely quest to turn sub-Saharan Africa, historically one of the hungriest places on the planet, into a major new breadbasket for the world.” Author Joel K. Bourne Jr. documents the land rush set off by skyrocketing prices for corn, soybeans wheat and rice, with giant agribusinesses eager to lease or buy acreage in places where land is cheap and governments are willing to make deals.


Using hand tools and draft animals, a family harvests wheat in Ethiopia. With more than a third of Ethiopians malnourished, the government is courting industrial farms to spur production. (© Robin Hammond/National Geographic)

The “green revolution” — the fertilizers, irrigation and high-yield seeds that doubled global grain production between 1960 and 2000 — never really took hold in Africa, Bourne writes.

But that seems to be changing dramatically. Bourne describes a Chinese corporation that is building a 50,000-acre farm in the Limpopo River delta, as well as a New York conference for agricultural investors that drew 800 financial leaders looking for places to invest nearly $3 trillion for pension funds, life insurance companies, hedge funds and so on.

The good news is that growing investment in sub-Saharan countries could provide more food — as well as jobs and infrastructure that could result a higher standard of living — for Africans.


Berbera (left), where these sheep and goats are being led to the ship bound for Saudi Arabia, has been a key port for Arab traders since the second century. Saudi Arabia imports 80 percent of its food, with meat consumption projected to rise this decade - good news for Somaliland’s nomadic herders. (© Robin Hammond/National Geographic)

The bad news?

So far, little of the bounty is trickling down to average citizens in countries such as Mozambique, where Bourne visited a soybean-growing community called Hoyo Hoyo that leased 25,000 acres to a Portuguese company, hoping to improve the local economy; instead, the company displaced farmers, reneged on promises of schools and a clinic and provided jobs for only about 40 villagers.

It’s not clear how climate change or competition from other developing nations might affect Africa’s farming prospects. But the big question, Bourne writes, remains: Who will do the farming in Africa’s future — individual farmers or giant corporations?


“The Next Breadbasket” appears in National Geographic’s July issue. (National Geographic)

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