Food market in Tangier, Morocco. (Photo/ Hernan Pinera)

Looking Nervously To The Skies, But Hunger In Africa Is Not Always About Rain

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THE October rains are late in much of eastern Africa, not a good sign for the agricultural season ahead. Satellite imagery from the Climate Prediction Center (CPC) shows a rapid expansion of abnormally dry conditions throughout the Greater Horn.

Many areas in eastern Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia have registered less than 10% of their normal rainfall accumulation, with other areas in the region having received zero rainfall since the beginning October.

Historically, an October with little to no rainfall has not fared well for the overall performance of the October-December rains season in East Africa, the CPC analysis shows.

There is a 60% chance that this rainy season will be dryer than normal in northern Kenya, and a 75% chance of the same in eastern Ethiopia and southern Somalia.

Things are slightly better in southern Africa, which battled extreme drought conditions earlier this year, brought about by the El-Nino weather phenomenon. Despite the increase in rainfall over the past few weeks, many areas in northern Angola and neighbouring DRC and Zambia remain below average during the early part of the season, the CPC analysis shows.

Since the beginning of October, widespread moisture deficits (25-100mm) can be seen in the region, with increasing moisture deficits beginning to affect areas towards the south in Zambia, the Caprivi Strip region, and Zimbabwe.

All this has an impact on food security in the region, as the vast majority of agricultural land in Africa is rain-fed. Just 5% of the continent’s cultivated land is irrigated.

Still, hunger is not necessarily a function of rain – even if it seems, intuitively, to be so. Data from the African Economic Outlook, published by the African Development Bank (AfDB), shows that some of the most arid countries in Africa, including Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia, have the highest food availability, measured in terms of calories available per person, per day.

Typically, women often require 1,600 to 2,400 calories daily, while many adult men need 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day to maintain a moderately active lifestyle.

In the countries above, as well as in South Africa, Ghana and Mauritius, each adult has over 3,000 calories on average available to them.

In many African countries, however – even relatively well-watered ones – most people just barely escape the hunger threshold.

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Zambia comes in last at only 1,930 calories; surprising as it is not Africa’s most arid or environmentally treacherous place.

Madagascar, with its lush rainforests, scrapes through at 2,052 calories per person. Zimbabwe, once a net food exporter and famous for being the region’s breadbasket, is at the same level today as arid Chad – just 2,110 calories per person.

And a person living in the Republic of Congo, a country among the top ten in annual precipitation in Africa, has only 2,195 calories available to them in a given day. The African average among the 45 countries included in the data is 2,448 calories.


It seems that hunger is also a function of per capita income, as in the case of arid North Africa where food is an existential issue. Governments have to ensure they provide it through imports and agricultural support or they risk being toppled, and people have the money to buy it.

Zimbabwe’s story has much to do with the economic and governance spiral it has found itself in over the past decade and a half, which put land in the hands of farmers, but a battered economy left them struggling to scrap together a meal.

But there’s something else there. Many of Africa’s lush, forested countries are not as fertile as they appear to be.

Rainforest soils are very thin, pounded as they are by torrential rain every day. The lushness is only a function of the decomposing leaves and other bio-matter that falls to the forest floor.

Once the trees are cleared away – for example, precisely to make room for farmland – one finds that the soil is barely a few centimetres deep, useful only for a season or so.

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