... (A) grand African paradox was beginning to form in Kenya: food shortages and surpluses side by side, simultaneous feast and famine. Drought was spreading in the northern and eastern reaches of Kenya, threatening herders and their livestock. The government declared a food shortage in the country and said it would be necessary to import food, either by purchasing from neighboring countries or inviting food aid, to feed the growing ranks of the hungry. ... At the same time, farmers in the breadbasket regions of western Kenya and the Rift Valley were complaining about the low prices they were receiving for their maize.

Could such a phenomena be happening more often than we realized? Possibly, but to what extent, and what are the prospects of domestic/cross-border trade to solve this? Putting the policy and market issues aside, we quickly looked into the historical rainfall records across the African continent to investigate these issues. Using the gridded monthly historical rainfall records retrieved from the University of East Anglia's CRU-TS v3.10.01, overlaid with the generic rainfed planting month data from CCAFS, we generated pixel-level seasonal rainfall data covering the first two-months of the rainfed maize season at 30 arc-minute (0.5 degree; 60 km grid), over a 30-year period (1979-2008). Area under rainfed maize across Africa was retrieved from our own SPAM 2005 dataset. Then, for each pixel we computed the 30-year mean of the (2 month) rainfall data as a benchmark. When a particular year's rainfall was less than 75% of the 30-year mean, the year was classified as drought and we assumed a food deficit occurred. Whereas, when a year's rainfall was more than 125% of the 30-year mean, we assumed the pixel area produced surplus yields. That is, we assume an area with above-normal rainfall has the potential to produce maize surplus through the effective means of intensification. This is a strictly hypothetical case; in reality higher rainfall does not necessarily correlate with more production unless other production constraints are resolved. 

First, let's look at the big picture. Across the entire rainfed maize area, the above Figure 1 shows the percentage of areas under the deficit (orange; rainfall is less than 75% of 30-year mean), surplus (blue; rainfall is more than 125% of 30-year mean), or normal (beige). Hmm. There is no clear pattern at this level, other than, generally speaking, more orange (deficit; drought) than blue (surplus), but there are certainly years where blue wins over orange. In these cases where the area of surplus is larger than the area of drought, there seems to be (hypothetical) potential that some trade can be helpful, if food production from the surplus can be transported to the deficit areas.  

OK, then let's see how many times the opportunity for mitigation through trade has arisen over the 30 year period. When the pixel-level rainfall was aggregated into four regional groups (using the pixel-level harvest area as weight), about 30% of the time (or 3 out of every 10 years) the area under surplus was larger than deficit in North Africa. In other regions, it was roughly about 40%. Which implies, if there is regional free trade, hypothetically (with no transport cost, no trade barriers, no post-harvest loss), the surplus food from the above-normal rainfall area can mitigate the food shortage in the deficit areas about 30-40% of time.

When we dig deeper to the country level, a similar pattern emerges. Figure 3 shows the same analysis disaggregated at the country-level for the top-10 maize producing countries in Africa. Results varied between 33% (Kenya; lowest potential for domestic trade to mitigate food deficits) and 53% (Zambia; highest potential), but overall the pattern suggests the possibility of balancing food inequalities and mitigating famine through the transportation of maize from surplus areas to areas of deficit. Most importantly, about half the time food does not have to necessarily come from outside the country or region, or through charity or international aid (the latter of which could distort domestic markets). Admittedly this is a relatively simple exercise based on pared down assumptions that takes advantage of readily available data. But we believe there is certainly large potential for intra-regional or domestic trade to enhance resilience in Africa’s food security and mitigate the recurring famines throughout the continent where rainfed agriculture is pervasive.



HarvestChoice, 2014. "Can Trade Help Solve a Grand African Paradox - Simultaneous Feast and Famine?." International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC., and University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. Available online at http://harvestchoice.org/node/9686.

Nov 3, 2014