Feeding Central Africa’s Booming Populations on Less Land Critical to Averting Conflict

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By Robert Mugabe

  • Experts highlight Rwanda’s progress in food security, but warn of significant challenges for Africa’s most conflict-ridden region in the face of climate change

KIGALI, RWANDA (25 October 2011) – Unless there is widespread use of farm approaches and innovations that can grow more food with less land, countries in Central Africa’s densely populated Great Lakes region could face increased conflict and greater instability in coming decades, warned agricultural experts

Meeting in Kigali this week, to examine the challenges and opportunities for sustainably improving farm production in Central Africa, experts say although good rainfall and temperatures make Central Africa one of the continent’s most high-potential farming areas, small farm sizes, persistent civil conflicts, poor infrastructure and political instability have left the region plagued with chronic food insecurity and the highest rates of malnutrition and extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Previous conflicts have been indirectly driven by the ability of the land to support the food needs of Central Africa’s high population densities,” said Nteranya Sanginga, a Congolese scientist and director general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) speaking in Kigali.

The Great Lakes region includes Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, northwestern Kenya and Tanzania. Most of the agricultural land has extremely high population densities – up to 400 people per square kilometer in Rwanda and Burundi – and severely degraded soils.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been in a state of almost continual instability and periodic violence since 1996. The International Rescue Committee has estimated that 5.4 million excess deaths resulted between the start of the second Congolese war in 1998 and 2007. A decade of conflicts in Burundi and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are responsible for widespread displacement and regional instability.

“In the future, a big question will be whether the land and the soils that underpin farm yields can support booming populations under new constraints like rapid climate change and other environmental factors,” continued Sanginga.

Indeed, the effects of climate change in the region are a major concern for the already resource-strained, landlocked countries of Rwanda, Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent research by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has shown that the ability of farmers to grow coffee – one of Rwanda’s largest cash crops – is severely affected by rising temperatures, making it more susceptible to pests and diseases.

“Without sustainable intensification of food production, there will be a high price. We will be going back to the situation of war – and not because of ethnicity – war for food, war for space,” Sangiga added.

During the morning’s keynote speech, Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and World Food Prize Laureate, argued that many current approaches to farm production are harmful to the environment and not accessible enough for farmers to adopt on a broader scale.

Participants at the CIALCA conference shared examples of sustainable farm approaches that can increase yields and alleviate land pressure in the region.

These include the widespread adoption of higher-yielding climbing beans in Rwanda that improve soils and the availability of dietary protein and intercrop high-value coffee plants with banana in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Hopefully, it is these kinds of innovations that can help to steer the region towards a brighter future,” said Jos Kalders, representing Belgium’s Directorate General for Development Cooperation (DGDC), which funds the work of the Consortium.

And while significant progress has been made in the region, scientists also drew attention to the severe yield gap of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural productivity. Staple crops such as maize, millet, beans, sweet potato and cassava are being produced at 60 percent to 90 percent below their potential.

“The region and the global community cannot afford to wait for pressures to mount again before acting,” said Kalders.

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