Is Over-Population the Cause of Hunger in Africa?

Agriculture forms the backbone of many African economies. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 70-80% of employment and 30% of gross domestic product (GDP) are derived from agriculture. Whereas many other countries of the world are showing substantial increases in yields, African countries suffer from decreasing agricultural yields.

In spite of foreign aid, or maybe partly because of it, African countries are faced with decreasing food supplies and increasing populations. Africa has one of the highest total fertility rates in the world but its food production is not keeping pace with population growth.

According to Peron (1994) in Exploding Population Myths, the argument that countries are poor because they have too many people and not enough resources does not hold for Africa because it is less densely populated than most of the wealthy countries of the world. Research has also shown that while Africa has a land mass three times larger than the United States, for example, it has only twice the population. Various authors in fact have shown that a sparseness of population, where it is unable to support anything more than very rudimentary communication and transport networks, inhibits economic growth. This retards the distribution of goods and services, and ideas. Therefore, the sparseness of Africa’s populations could be one of the contributing factors to its economic situation.

Others argue that Africa’s poverty is caused through there being “not enough resources”; this cannot be true given that many developed countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Switzerland, are not endowed with natural resources. By comparison, Africa is one of the richest natural resource endowed continents in the world. The problem is that most of its natural resources are unused, misused or even squandered by corrupt governments. In his1983 publication, The Africans, David Lamb reported that Africa had 40% of the world’s potential hydroelectric power supply; the bulk of the world’s gold; 90% of its cobalt; 50% of its phosphate; 40% of its platinum; 7.5% of its coal, 8% of its known petroleum reserves; 12% of its natural gas; 3% of its iron ores; and millions upon millions of acres of untilled farmland. He noted that not another continent is blessed with such abundance. More recent figures show considerable changes due to new discoveries offset by reductions due to re-assessments and depletion of sources. A study by the Economic Commission for Africa reveals that currently Africa holds nearly 30% of the world’s mineral reserves, including gold 42%, bauxite 42%, uranium 38%, diamonds 88%, chromite 44%, manganese 82%, cobalt 55%, vanadium 95%, and platinum 73%.

There is evidence that Africa had high food production capacity in the 1930s and 50s. This declined in the 1970s and continues to do so. For example, in Mozambique alone, cashew nut production fell from 216,000 tons in 1972 to 1,000 tons in 1985, sugar production from 285,581 tons in 1974 to just 120,000 in 1982, and rice, maize and banana production also fell within the same period. Using these statistics and those from other African countries which show a similar trend, Gale Johnson in his World Food and Agriculture: A 20-Year Perspective, points out that the decline in per capita food production in Africa was not due to a lack of resources but to many factors that were primarily political in nature - for example the exploitation of farmers through low prices set by governments, civil unrest, military conflicts and the number of refugees. According to his analysis, Africa had a constant average level of per capita food production during the 1950s and 60s and a shocking decline during the 70s. In the 1980s, per capita, food production in Africa was 15% below 1969-71. Total food production increased 10% while population grew about 25%. Generally, many African governments have instituted a system of state control over resources and productive capacity that has reduced productivity and per capita income for Africans.

The ideology that over-population causes hunger in Africa is a myth. Africa is not over- populated given that it is less densely populated than most wealthy countries. And, as stated above, hunger in Africa is caused by many factors that are primarily political in nature.

To solve Africa’s problem of hunger, governments need to redesign policies and implement those that foster economic growth. This would include doing away with trade barriers; protecting private property; and promoting individual freedom by lifting restrictions on trade and liberalising labour laws so that individuals can produce and be innovative knowing that they will benefit from their efforts.

If all of this is done, high economic growth will occur and increased economic growth will deliver positive spin-offs for all the peoples of Africa.

Author: Vivian Abit Atud is a researcher at the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 08 December 2009

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