Food Security in Southern Africa – in search of a full and nutritious food basket

5 May 2016

The research experts making up the core group of the STIAS-Forum continue their important work on sustainable intensification of agricultural production in southern Africa at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS).

Three of the members of the STIAS long-term project on the Impact of sustainable intensification of food production on environment and human well-being, from left, Eugene Terry, Joyce Chitja and Richard Sikora.

Southern Africa is currently producing less food than needed to feed its present population adequately. The region needs to increase overall production by at least 1 to 2% per annum to keep up with population increases and the effects of environmental changes threatening plant production.

The STIAS-Forum team believes that the region needs to dramatically increase food production and make radical shifts in the way food is produced in the future.

To do this, countries need to adopt established good-farming practices that lead to increased yields across all forms of farming systems and farm sizes. The farmers in the region need to: have access to modern plant varieties, increase irrigation and fertilisation, improve overall soil fertility management and plant health management practices. All of which will lead to higher production levels.

We should not underestimate the huge new challenges confronting us in the near future, ranging from climate change, water shortages, environmental degradation, new invasive pests and diseases, land rights and land distribution to global food price volatility, regional and local policies, and female empowerment issues.

These complex challenges and others are being examined by a group of STIAS fellows who are part of a long-term STIAS research theme which runs from 2014 to 2018 concerned with sustainable agro-ecosystems and the subtheme sustainable intensification of agriculture.  The core group of fellows – Richard Sikora, Eugene Terry and Paul Vlek – presented an update on their work to a STIAS seminar in April 2016.

The good news reported by the team is that we are getting to grips with the extent of this complex problem. There are some known facts concerning production which we can use to paint a ‘new food security picture’ in the future. We know many of the factors that will drive changes and transformation in agriculture but we also know that looking towards 2050, there are future factors that will impact on food security which we do not as yet know – the ‘unknowns’. However, humans have the ability to adopt and adapt – and when we improve our ability to increase food production to match population pressures that is what agricultural intensification is all about.

Need for reliable data

“One of the major challenges to the project and the region is the lack of reliable statistical data. It’s hard enough to predict future scenarios without valid data, but for many African countries we don’t even have reliable current and past data,” said Paul Vlek.

For example, there is more than one climate change model – we need to know which one is right and should be used in the region and also question whether we need a tailor-made climate change model for southern Africa.

Southern Africa is a climate-change hot spot and will get hotter and drier which means not only increasing stress on the environment but also increasing pressure from soil-degradation pests. Further increases in soil degradation mean that fertilisers alone cannot improve the soil.

In Zimbabwe for example, a decrease in rainfall of only 7 to 14% can mean a decrease in farming revenue of $300 million.

Currently Africa only irrigates 4% of arable land but has the potential to irrigate 20% – but this means investments which have political and economic ramifications. Crop improvement – introducing crops that are drought resistant and resistant to a broader range of pests and diseases, as well as crops that have shorter growing seasons – is another option that needs to be investigated.

Non-level playing field

The African farmer also does not compete on a level playing field. European and American farmers are heavily subsidised – even a fraction of those subsidies could make a huge impact in Africa. World markets are not under the control of African farmers and policy makers and only products produced in Europe access European markets. Indigenous Africa markets simply do not have the purchasing power for staples – therefore more markets outside Africa are needed.

The effects of modifying production in the farming community, the urban-rural continuum and the physical and biological environment in these agro-ecosystems will also be examined by the project. Findings will be discussed with experts and politicians from the region. The results will be presented in lectures and strategic documents that aim to critically review the complex factors impacting food security in southern Africa; evaluate the concepts put forward to improve food production; examine the positive and negative effects of change on the rural farming community; and, make proposals for innovative solutions.

“There is no doubt that scientific and technological advances need to be harnessed alongside local ingenuity,” said Eugene Terry. “But nothing can happen in a vacuum – an enabling environment that includes government and institutional support is needed.”

“Good agricultural practice is built on well-tested and broadly used crop-production building blocks, however, there are aspects of good agricultural practice that many African farmers don’t have access to.” said Richard Sikora.

The good news is that “All the technology needed to produce good crops is available,” continued Sikora, “it just has to be brought in and be adapted to be site and farmer specific. Some of the technologies targeted to larger farm production units are not necessarily appropriate for poorer farmers but there are alternatives.”

“We need a toolbox of interventions – no one intervention will solve our food security issues,” said Terry. “There is also a need for regional harmonisation of policies or things can go haywire.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS



In February 2015 over 40 international and regional participants met in Stellenbosch for a Roundtable hosted by STIAS and sponsored by the Marianne and Marcus Wallenberg Foundation, to discuss strategic directions for agricultural transformation in southern Africa. The Roundtable aimed to elucidate four outcomes including a vision for agricultural transformation; the major reforms and resources required, and, a roadmap for effective implementation. The vision proposed by the participants was “agricultural intensification at multiple scales with broad stakeholder participation for food and nutritional security in southern Africa”.

Participants envisaged agriculture in the region which relies on the region’s natural, human and financial resources to create wealth and jobs, and ensure sustainable food and nutritional security; which allowed for innovative farming models at different scales; and, will be competitive and integrated into the regional economy through value chains.

Related content:

News (10/03/2015): Feeding the region: towards a healthy food basket for southern Africa

News (26/11/2014): Working to replenish southern Africa’s food basket

Project: Impact of sustainable intensification of food production on environment and human well-being

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