The green sugar cane fields of southern Malawi bear testimony to the fertile soil that blankets the sun-drenched land. But aid agencies say 5 million people there, or close to half the population, need food aid -- a shocking state of affairs in a country which should be a farmer's paradise.
CHIKWAWA, Malawi The green sugar cane fields of southern Malawi bear testimony to the fertile soil that blankets the sun-drenched land.
But aid agencies say 5 million people there, or close to half the population, need food aid -- a shocking state of affairs in a country which should be a farmer's paradise.
From Niger in West Africa to mountainous Lesotho in the south, this scenario is repeating itself -- relief operations under way to feed millions of people.
Africa's blessings need to be weighed against its curses, and the reasons for hunger vary from region to region.
"The hunger has different regional causes. In Niger, a large part of it was environmental. There were locust swarms and the bad rains," says Clare Rudebeck, a spokeswoman for aid agency Oxfam.
Desertification, caused in part by widespread deforestation, threatens to drive millions of Africans from their homes, a international report said earlier this year.
Such a process may already be having an impact on food security and is seen as a source of conflict between nomadic herders and pastoralists.
In southern Africa, where mass starvation is not imminent but where an estimated 12 million people need food aid to see them through to the April harvest, AIDS is the main culprit.
"Lack of rains is the trigger but the underlying causes are complex and include AIDS," Rudebeck said.
Workers in the prime of life are falling ill and succumbing to the pandemic, leaving the very young and the very old to do the back-breaking labour required on peasant plots -- with obvious consequences for crop yields.
Demographics is another hindrance, as poor rural people view children as an asset and so have large families, meaning that population growth in many African countries is faster than economic growth.
The result is societies which are growing poorer with shrinking family incomes that are unable to buy food when the going gets tough.
A study this year found the number of poor people in Africa almost doubled between 1981 and 2001 and the continent is home to virtually all of the planet's "ultra-poor" who live on less than half a dollar a day.
Much of the arable land in densely populated countries such as Malawi is being used for cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and coffee, leaving less space for essential staples.
NO GREEN REVOLUTION
Africa has also missed out on much of the "Green Revolution", a global effort to boost staple crop yields which has focused on wheat, rice and maize. Only the latter is widely grown in Africa but it is not very resistant to drought.
Much of Africa is heavily dependent on millet, tubers and other staples which have been by-passed by the green revolution.
And in a Brookings Institution paper called "Ending Africa's Poverty Trap" published last year, American economist Jeffrey Sachs pointed out that while Africa has its fertile regions, much of the continent has erratic rainfall and few large rivers for irrigation.
The roots of the problem go deep in history.
"The problem is that only a tiny minority of wild plants and animals lend themselves to domestication, and those few are concentrated in about half a dozen parts of the world," Jared Diamond, who has written extensively on environmental influences on history, wrote in September's issue of National Geographic.
Many of the domesticated foodstuffs that sprang from the Fertile Crescent in southwestern Asia spread east and west but were halted from marching south into Africa by the vast Sahara desert.
"Africa's own native plant species -- sorghum, oil palm, coffee, millets and yams -- weren't domesticated until thousands of years after Asia and Europe had agriculture," Diamond said.
In short, Africa had a late start to begin with and still faces an often inhospitable environment.
Bad governance is not helping, with Zimbabwe's seizure of white-owned farms for distribution to poor blacks blamed for a collapse of commercial farming in a former breadbasket.