Over the past three days in Yokohama, top government and business leaders from Africa and Japan discussed what they see as an exciting future for booming African economies, at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development.

The optimistic narrative on Africa’s economies is supported by rapidly growing populations on the continent, which is likely to create a massive market.

The United Nations predicts that the population for all of Africa will further expand to 2.5 billion people by 2050, at which point one in every four humans would be African.

But Gilbert Houngbo, who heads the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a U.N. body specializing in extending loans and grants to poor farmers in rural areas around the world, warned that those same expanding African populations could become “liabilities” rather than paying “dividends” for the continent’s economies.

“Without improvement (in agricultural production), yes, I’m concerned,” Houngbo told The Japan Times.

Together with four other U.N. bodies, IFAD published a report last month on hunger and malnutrition around the globe, titled “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019.” Until 2015, the number of people suffering from hunger had been on a consistent decline for decades. Then the trend reversed, including in Africa.

The U.N. report found that the number of undernourished people in the world has been on the rise ever since, and is already back to levels seen in 2010-2011 including in Africa. In 2018, 820 million people did not have enough food to eat and suffered from malnutrition, according to the report.

“Hunger is on the rise in almost all African sub-regions, making Africa the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment — at almost 20 percent” of the continent’s total population, the report said.

During the interview, Houngbo pointed out that 80 percent of food consumed in Africa is produced on small farms of less than 2 hectares.

Such poor farmers in rural areas are “in danger of (being) left behind,” Houngbo said, highlighting the contrast with the thriving cities.

Many farmers in Africa face a variety of difficulties, such as a lack of irrigation and the impacts from climate change. To improve their productivity, a “comprehensive approach” is needed, meaning not just focusing on the food production system but also on many other factors such as storage systems, land conservation, gender issues and the mindsets of the African farmers, Houngbo noted.

For example, IFAD and several African countries are now promoting an initiative called Smallholder Horticulture Empowerment and Promotion (SHEP), Houngbo said.

Under the SHEP approach, farmers are urged to be more business-oriented and plan their farming with marketing in mind from the beginning. Right now, many family farmers start thinking about selling their produce only after it is grown.

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