Another possible future for Africa and the world

Africa can’t afford that this century be like its last one. No one can. These days I have Africa on the mind because we’re modelling land use systems projected to 2050, and it’s hard to keep Africans fed, healthy, and developing economically (to any reasonable standard) without wrecking the continent’s natural systems, and ultimately the resource base upon which its development depends.

The single most important driver (for argument’s sake) is population growth. Predicting this on the global scale is hard enough; doing so on sub-continental scale is harder still. The Pew Research Center predicts that Africa will represent 25% of the global population by 2050 (see #8), and see Africa as the only continent whose share of world population is expected to still be growing by 2050; the share of every other region will be in decline, as a result of lower birth rates. Demographers’ estimates out to 2100 are, naturally, more uncertain, with some believing that world population will continue to grow this century and others that it will stabilize before 2100. But the crucial point is that both arguments hinge on whether African population growth will be brought under control. There are several barriers to this, among which is growing enough food.

There is an argument, rising in volume now even in the press, that traditional methods of agriculture are the solution, or part of it. The idea is that we can mine various methods of agriculture from the past and present to find practices that are resilient to expected future environmental changes. A strength of this “analogues” argument is that past methods (in similar contexts) have, in a sense, been experimented with and the complex feedbacks with disastrous consequences for intensification projects have been implicitly worked through. A weakness is that identifying and generalizing “success” across similar but different contexts, and classifying causal strategies with desirable, resilient outcomes, is far from clear. Furthermore, traditional methods require lots of low-skilled labour, and may reinforce gender inequality and social immobility.

In any case, it may not matter. The dominant model for economic growth and development of African food systems (which I work on presently in my capacity as a research scholar at IIASA) is intensification through mechanisation, industrial fertilizer use, and so on. There is no doubt that the transformation from traditional methods underway now, particularly on commercial farms growing products for export, follow this dominant model. Parts of Africa are developing remarkably quickly, due to profit driven investment from Asia and the Middle East. But there remain a lot of barriers to the success of this intensification model as a means of economic development and food security for Africans, such as variable and uncertain land tenure, weak and corrupt institutions, poor and crumbling infrastructure, and of course climate change. If Africans behave similarly to Europeans, Latin Americans, and Asians as their farming systems transformed, we can expect people (particularly the able-bodied young) will be driven from the rural areas due to lack of work. This will grow urban populations, but it’s also probable that this will add to out-migration, as is presently the case in Mesoamerica.

But this will also play out in the context of a landscape shaped by the choices Africans (and the others their farmers export to) make about the kinds of foods they eat, not just the calories. Throughout eastern and southern Africa are deeply rooted cultures of cattle herding. Grazing cattle on common, drought stressed land is not sustainable for anyone, leaving aside for the moment its effects on wildlife. Many people will face jarring, dissonant, culturally existential decisions about this. Consider that, if current livestock densities could go on under a moderate population growth regime, the continent of Africa will have all but wiped out its forests, and by implication denuded all of its rangelands, by 2050. We’ve run the numbers. This is all to say that, under a business as usual regime, the likely result is socio-ecological suicide by mid-century.
I hasten to add that, as a final thought, Africans are pretty well positioned to respond to most of the challenges raised above. In sub-Saharan East Africa, for instance, diets are generally quite healthy, with a relatively high proportion of vegetables, legumes, and tubers to meat; and in West Africa, local preference for fufu as the staple starch is highly sustainable. Strengthening institutions and overcoming strong patriarchal structures will remain a heavy lift. In my humble opinion, hitting just those last two targets will go a long way to reducing conflict and chronic refugeeism. Of course, they need not be replaced with examples from elsewhere. For instance, the “African socialism” (Ujamaa) of Julius Nyerere set up conditions in persisting in Tanzania today that would be admirable anywhere, and particularly in comparison to some of its neighbours.

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