Fast growing African population: Opportunity or threat for Africa’s agriculture?

Decisions made by South African and African policymakers now will determine the contribution the agricultural sector will make to the growing demand for food the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing.

Lulama Ndibongo-Traub, from the Bureau of Food and Agricultural Policy’s (BFAP) research section for Africa – at the annual BFAP baseline assessment – says the worth of food imports in the region increased from US$7 billion to US$40 billion between 2001 and 2015.

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is experiencing the fastest population growth in the world. In 2001 the population was 0.9 billion, in 2050 it will be 2.1 billion and by 2100 the number will stand at 3.8 billion.

According to Ndibongo-Traub, the question is whether Africa can sustain the increase in food demand itself, or whether the continent’s food will have to come from elsewhere.

“Thanks to political commitments to triple trade on the continent, there is a good possibility that the continent can feed itself, even if there are very high non-tariff limits in place.

“SSA is currently experiencing an upward trend in intra-regional trade, with the total imports increasing from 1 billion to 10 billion between 2001 and 2015. However, the non–SSA is still dominating the space.”


Ndibongo-Traub says there is rapid growth rate in the regional trade of edible vegetables, animal fat and fish.
South Africa is the biggest exporter, but countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia and Swaziland are increasing their exports.

She says South Africa provided 60% of the region’s agricultural products, but its market share decreased to 41% in 2015.


Ndibongo-Traub says South Africa can only exploit its opportunities if there is more focus on policies to reduce risk and cost.

“On the level of primary production as well as agro-processing, favourable policies are necessary. On primary production level, more must be spent on research and extension, but the opposite is true. In 2000 a total of 40.7% of the agricultural budget was spent on it, but in 2014 that amount decreased to 21.2%.”

She says more should be spent on e.g. the development of infrastructure schemes. In 2000, that spending was 7.1% and by 2014 it had increased to 10.6%.

According to Dr. John Purchase, executive head of the agricultural business chamber Agbiz, the expected steep increase in the demand for food in Africa can be either a threat, or an opportunity.

“What we do about it is in our own hands. We must position ourselves and work out how we can use the opportunities. The problems are plenty and complex, but the solutions for our development will be determined by our abilities and ambitions.”

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