NAIROBI, Kenya — With the world's appetite for food expanding, sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly two-thirds of people making their living from farming, could be developing into an agricultural powerhouse.
But Africa's farms today are only one-fourth as productive as the world average. Populations are growing fast, while food productivity per capita has declined from 30 years ago. During that time, Africa has gone from a continent of food exporters to one that imports some 20 million tons of it every year.
"These are farmers who are basically always living on the edge," said Josh Ruxin, a development expert at Columbia University. "They produce just enough food to eat, and during natural disasters or economic downturns they use up their crops and are thrust to the brink of hunger."
Experts say that Africa badly needs a "green revolution" like the one that lifted millions of farmers in Asia and Latin America out of poverty a generation ago with higher-yielding seeds and basic innovations such as fertilizer and improved irrigation. The vast majority of African farmers still tend their crops by hand, fertilizer use is one-tenth what it is in Asia and less than 4 percent of farmland is irrigated.
"Generally there is no difference between the equipment I use and what my grandparents used," said James Ndegwa, a 46-year-old farmer in Kiambu, in southern Kenya, who tills his two-and-a-half-acre plot with hoes and machetes. His biggest technological advance is a diesel-powered water pump for irrigation, but the price of diesel fuel has doubled.
The Kenyan government offers millions of dollars in loans to farmers, but Ndegwa said the process was overwhelmingly slow and bureaucratic and that much of the money ended up going to wealthier farmers.
"The extension officers can take up to four to five months to come and inspect your small farm," he said.
"I would prefer to just farm on my own."
A lack of basic infrastructure makes it expensive and time-consuming to transport goods to market, especially during fuel-price shocks.
"The roads are not very good. There isn't much access to technology and finance," said Alex Evans, a development expert at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. "In the first place, farmers need to have those extension services."
Foreign donors have neglected Africa's farm sector in recent decades, shifting the bulk of development assistance to health and education projects. The U.S. government has cut agricultural aid to Africa by 75 percent over the past two decades, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan research center.
In Burundi, where 91 percent of the population depends on agriculture, the government invests just 2 percent of its budget in the farm sector. That figure is even lower in other countries. African Union member countries pledged in 2003 to increase agriculture spending to at least 10 percent of their national budgets within five years, but only Rwanda and Zambia have followed through, the Council on Foreign Relations points out.
Experts say that several basic interventions can help farmers in even the most cash-starved nations.
In most African countries, farmers plant poor-quality seeds that produce lackluster crops. The government in Rwanda, a tiny agrarian nation in central Africa, recently mandated that 10 percent of every harvest be stored in seed banks, and it set aside government land for the purpose. Ruxin, the founder of the Access Project anti-poverty program in Rwanda, said that the initiative had been reasonably successful so far.
With the vast majority of crops dependent on rainfall, better collection of rainwater would help cushion farmers during dry periods, experts say. In parts of Kenya and Rwanda, for example, farm cooperatives have dug simple catchments in the soil to trap rainwater.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last month that African farm production should double within a decade. Agronomists caution against such rosy predictions, saying that African farmers may never catch up to their Asian or Latin American counterparts.
It may simply be enough, experts say, for African farmers to be able to feed themselves reliably, escaping the clutches of poverty and reducing the continent's dependence on emergency food aid.
"What is clear is that if there's a green revolution in Africa, it's not going to look like the green revolution in Asia," Ruxin said. "It will not be about exporting huge amounts of food, but it will be about millions of people in Africa being able to feed themselves and to afford things like health care, education for their kids. And that in itself would be revolutionary."