Africa’s Food Challenge

The world’s population will likely reach nine billion by 2050, and Africa could help feed it. In some areas arable land may be developed; in other areas it never will be.

The African continent has 11.6 million square miles of varied terrain, from mountains and deserts to rain forests and farmland.

There are areas where the elevation is too high for agriculture...

...or where the climate is too hot or too dry.

These areas have soils that are too shallow, sandy, or salty for productive farming.

If you subtract tropical soils, very acidic and low in nutrients, you’re left with...

...the naturally fertile soils of Africa.

Here are Africa’s current croplands.

These are croplands with poor soil that has been improved and uncultivated land with fertile soil.

Nearly one-fourth of the world’s agricultural land is in Africa but is not being worked to its full potential.

Stagnation in African Agriculture

Decades ago the green revolution increased crop yields in India and other developing countries using fertilizer, irrigation, and improved seeds. But it never took root in Africa, where yields have barely risen since the 1960s. Less than 5 percent of arable land in sub-Saharan Africa is currently irrigated. With modern farming techniques and programs to help farmers afford them, this potential breadbasket might not only feed itself but also export a surplus.

The High Cost of Fertilizer

What African farmers pay for fertilizer can be more than 82 percent higher than the cost to farmers in Thailand. Factors raising the price include poor infrastructure, especially roads, and weak or corrupt governments.

Boosting the Harvest

More than 24 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is malnourished. Bringing production of just 16 key crops up to their potential could yield more than 205 million additional metric tons of food.


Poverty, civil unrest, and lack of access to credit or markets all contribute to low yields on fertile ground. No region of the world is growing faster than sub-Saharan Africa. Today's population of 926 million may hit 2.2 billion by 2050. Colors on the map show where harvests meet their potential—or fail to. Africa's gap between potential and yield is the world’s largest.

All Maps and graphics: Virginia W. Mason and Jason Treat, NGM Staff
Sources: JOINT RESEARCH CENTRE, EUROPEAN COMMISSION; global landscapes initiative, university of minnesota; D. I. Gregory, International Fertilizer Development Center; population reference bureau; FAOSTAT