Agriculture in Africa: What Does our Future Look Like?

And how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacts food security for multiple African countries? We take a look.

By Zakiyah Ebrahim

Africa is home to 60% of the world’s arable land – it is considered an important centre of agricultural production. It has enormous potential to meet our own food needs and those of other countries on other continents. But several factors are changing the environment in which our continent’s agriculture operates and are leading to huge concerns around food security. (Food security means that not all people have access to safe, affordable and nutritious food.) Science Stars looks at what has changed over the years for our continent, how we are coping today, and what the best way forward is.


Agriculture, or the practice of farming, in Africa dates as far back as 3000 BCE, with sources pointing to its emergence in West Africa, where farmers grew a diverse range of food crops. Today, the agricultural industry plays a vital economic role – not only does it employ a large portion of the continent’s people, but it also contributes to the GDP in sub- Saharan Africa.

GDP refers to the total value of the goods and services produced in a country, usually during a year. Coffee, fruit, vegetables and cocoa, for example, are exported from Africa and are considered important sources of foreign exchange. In many rural parts of Africa, agriculture is also the primary source of food and income. But growth in this sector has been limited, and farmers’ incomes across the continent are also lower than anywhere else in the world. Africa’s population is also expected to triple by 2050. With many barriers limiting its ability to reach its full potential, experts say this will threaten food security, especially in East Africa.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa experienced severe food insecurity. In 2018, the World Food Programme predicted that food insecurity would double in three decades from now and that more than half would be in sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s even more worrying is that, even though food is still being produced and distributed during the pandemic, the experience could cause one of the worst food crises since World War II. The long period of lockdowns and restrictions have also made it difficult for farmers to sell their products, leaving them with limited or no income.


Some experts believe that before colonialism, crops were grown in abundance and could sustain Africa’s people, but under colonial rule, indigenous farmers were coerced into growing and exporting commodities, such as cotton and palm oil nuts.

Unfortunately, this provided little benefit and forced indigenous farmers to neglect their own food crops in the process. Because of this redirection of the agricultural production systems, there were severe food shortages, which can still be seen in some countries today, including Ghana and Senegal. Export crops are grown on more than 50% of cultivable land, for example, while food is imported. (Export crops are food items that a country produces and then sells to a foreign country, while import crops refer to buying and bringing foods into a country that was   produced in another country). A report by McKinsey tells us that sub-Saharan Africa imports more than R225 billion in food crops, including grains, sugar and edible oils from Asia and South America.

Scientists at the University of South Australia explained in an article for The Conversation: “Agricultural development became based on western economic, technological and political ideologies, rather than African solutions for African conditions.” Despite this, they say African farmers were innovative and entrepreneurial, and seized opportunities when they encountered them.

Rainfall patterns have become unpredictable while African soils are, geologically, very old and infertile. Fertile soils can mainly be found in the East African Rift Valley near Kenya and Uganda but need proper agricultural water management. Droughts, pests and diseases have also led to crops taking a toll, causing food losses. 

Other researchers say groundwater resources are enough to transform agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. The reserves could be used for irrigation – watering crops through man-made systems, such as sprinklers, pipes and canals. But the resource has been poorly managed or untapped for a long time.


The journey to transforming agriculture and eradicating food insecurity in Africa will be a long one but is possible. 

To realise the Mother Continent’s full agricultural potential, the continent will need innovation in its agricultural sector and get involved in new farming techniques. McKinsey suggests that they will need more than eight times more fertiliser, more improved seeds and billions of rands of investment for storage technology and irrigation. This can only work if farmers, civil society organisations and policymakers work together to create sustainable solutions to grow this sector

Heifer International, a US-based non-profit organisation, also conducted a survey that showed that many agricultural organisations had to temporarily close because of the pandemic. But the survey also found that combining technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and agriculture, known as ‘digital agriculture’, will offer hopeful solutions. 

 “The journey to transforming agriculture and eradicating food insecurity in Africa will be a long one but is possible”

Omri Van Zyl, Africa Agriculture Leader at Deloitte, is optimistic: Africa’s agricultural sector can experience exponential growth over the next decade, he says. But this can only happen if the industry diversifies enough and invests in certain factors limiting its development, such as financial and infrastructural challenges. He gives an example of storage infrastructure through grain silos, a structure used in agriculture that can store bulk materials.

“Using technology and innovation for food security and sustainable development is one way of making certain that the food produced is secure for consumers. The use of modern technology, like seed varieties … is able to increase agricultural production without using any genetically modified crops,” says van Zyl.

With these suggested solutions put into practice, Africa will be able to enrich the lives of those who produce and those who consume for generations to come, say experts.

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