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The View from Here: The paradox that is Africa

Mike Gangwer Published on 20 September 2011
I am sitting in a large conference room in Arlington, Virginia. There are about 75 of us from four agencies and organizations. The State Department, the Defense Department, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and then a collection of non-government organizations, the U.S. Agency for International Development and contractors.

Our task is to examine the current status of water and land resources in Africa and the potential for greater food insecurity – a big job. In this article, I will summarize what we have learned and what we might do in the short term and long term.

Africa has been a paradox for many decades. On the one hand much (not all) of the continent has enormous natural resources, including an agricultural land base, surface waters and a rain-fed cropping system.



On the other hand, African crop yields are some of the lowest in the world. Most countries there suffer from food insecurity, and economic development has been spotty at best. Consider that this summer the Somalian humanitarian crisis is fully manifest, with hundreds of thousands of people in peril for lack of food and potable drinking water.

In short, while the continent has potential, it suffers from the dire effects of famines, malnourishment and disease at a level not seen anywhere else in the world.

The conference speakers identified three causal factors that, taken together, yield huge challenges for the Africans and those trying to help them. The term “trying to help them” refers to partnering with the Africans to modernize their agricultural industry.

The modernization effort is relative, however, and does not mean turning the continent into another Corn Belt or Central Valley. Modernization will include management practices that beneficially use water for crop consumption, a soil fertility program for crop growth and land use practices that stop land degradation (water and wind erosion, compaction, loss of soil organic matter).

The three causal factors are: a rapidly increasing human population, warming temperatures as a function of climate change and increased severity of weather patterns, primarily the hyetograph (rainfall intensity per unit time) which swings from too little to too much water in a short period of time (drought to flood events in a few years time span) and the hydrograph (volume flow per unit time) of surface water and conveyance structure flows.


The human population challenge is based in cultures and societies that have rampant disease, especially malaria, the single biggest disease in all of Africa. Further, population growth is manifest in an economy that is largely agrarian, so women bear children to help with the mighty struggle of food production on small tracts of land.

Lack of economic development keeps most families at the subsistence level, and this lack of opportunity for an off-farm job is a real challenge. An education is required for the few good jobs, so the “haves” certainly know the value of money and education. In many countries, these elites guard this model steadfastly, and it is this lack of governance that keeps poor people poor.

Warming temperatures have many consequences. Increased evaporation rates deplete soil moisture sooner along with the loss of surface water volume (rivers and lakes). Transpiration rates are higher, so more irrigation water is necessary to cool the plant/crop canopy.

Soil organic matter mineralizes at a fast rate. Higher temperatures degrade human performance, too … we are not as productive in high heat.

Yet it is the third component that worries this conference group the most; this is Africa’s ability to flatten the peaks and lows of the hydrograph. We are now seeing extreme dry events and extreme flood events in the same place within a few years’ time span.

The lack of infrastructure in Africa (unlike the U.S. or in Europe) means that the economy cannot absorb the shock of these weather events; the result is many people facing dire conditions of food insecurity, as we now see in Somalia.


What to do? Consensus at the conference included three suggestions.

One, we recognize that the U.S. government, the private sector and church groups cannot do this alone. China is a huge player in Africa today. Their main goal is self-serving: By building infrastructure (roads, bridges, dams), they can legally contract with the host government for the sale of oil and minerals.

Some Middle Eastern countries are investing in farmland and introducing modern agricultural practices to the local farmers. Nearly all of the land is leased for long periods of time, and while some of the increased crop yield helps mitigate local food insecurity, a large portion is exported back to the invested country.

Therefore, we can accept the world dynamics as they are, and partner with these countries as we bring our comparative advantages to the table.

Our second suggestion was fundamental to developmental work across the entire globe: mentoring government to bring a high level of governance. We may define this as the political leadership being held accountable for their actions, and those actions should be developing the cultural and economic scales of self worth, human rights and economic development.

Yes, it’s a tall order. In short, leaders who are capable of putting the interests of those they represent ahead of their own.

Our final suggestion was an interesting one. Those with extensive experience in Africa claimed that water systems should be a means to an end, rather than an end in itself. For development workers at any scale, this means that water development, such as an irrigation system or irrigation water management training and technology, are outputs.

The expected or desired goal or end state of outcome is economic development … perhaps increased crop yield that increases farm income or a land management system that increases soil fertility and organic matter because residue is put back into the soil matrix.

As I walked out of the two-day event, I thought to myself that what I learned is not too surprising, and the suggestions we made could be (with some slight modification) applied in other parts of the world. I was also thinking about Africa from a historical perspective, and the challenges the Africans face today have been with them for decades and perhaps centuries.

Can we make a difference? Perhaps a better question is: Can the Africans themselves bring their continent into the modern world, chipping away at the current model of a few at the top making nearly all the decisions and having access to the wealth?

Can the Africans find and encourage young leaders who will put the interests of their people ahead of their own?

Yes, these are aspiration goals, I admit. The challenge is to convert them into results in the field at a national, regional and local level. We can help them operationalize these goals, but only if they are willing to invest the resources and human effort into them. PD

Gangwer writes a column in each issue of Progressive Dairyman ’s Northwest and Southwest regional inserts. He has contributed commentary to the magazine for more than two decades. Visit to read his past columns.


Mike Gangwer
USDA FAS Senior Agricultural Adviser