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Blog item: Africa in 2040: The Darkened Continent

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0 comments   Add a comment   Author:  chefurka (Feb-16-2008)
Categories: Economic/Financial, Global Warming, Peak Oil/Gas & Energy Demand, Wildlife and Nature

African desert


There is a darkness moving on the face of the land.  We catch glimpses of it in newscasts from far-off places that few of us have ever seen.  We hear hints of it on the radio, read snippets about it in newspapers and magazines. The stories are always fragmentary, lacking context or connection. They speak of things like inflation in Zimbabwe, war in Chad, electricity problems in Johannesburg, famine in Malawi, pipeline fires burning hundreds in Nigeria, political violence in Kenya, cholera in Congo.  Each snapshot of grief heaves briefly into view, then fades back into obscurity.  With every fresh story we are left asking ourselves, "Is there something bigger going on here, some unseen thread connecting these dots?  Or is this just more of the same from a continent that has known more than its share of misery?"

This paper is my attempt to connect those dots, to tease some order out of the chaos of the news reports.  I will use some very simple numerical techniques to fill in the missing lines, and in the end a picture will emerge.  I can tell you in advance that the picture is fearsome beyond imagining, and you may well be tempted to avert your gaze.  I would advise you instead to screw up your courage and take a good look.  It is crucial to our future as a civilized race.

Until we get to that point, however, some of the things I'm going to tell you may seem a little dry.  There are a number of graphs in this article, and if you're like most people you may be tempted to skip over them and get on with the story.  Again, I'd advise against that.  The true story of what's going on is in those numbers.  It's very difficult to tell a tale this big with individual anecdotes, as compelling as they may be.  While personal stories can bring the situation to life, they can not effectively convey the scope and scale of something as large as we'll be investigating.  I've tried my best to make the graphs readable, to keep the critical information un-obscured.  Each graph has a crucial tale to tell.  I hope you spend some time with each one, thinking about what those bloodless numbers mean in terms of human lives.

At the end we will discuss what the world is, isn't and should be doing to change the picture.  There is much to discuss and ponder, much outrage to express, and perhaps even some fears to deal with.  But there is also the promise of hope, of challenges to meet, perhaps even redemption of a sort.  Until we meet there, lets get busy filling in those missing lines.


This paper is built on the findings of two previous works, World Energy to 2050 and Energy Intensity and GDP in 2050.  The former established a "high probability" scenario for the evolution of the world's energy supply over the next few decades.  The latter extended the analysis by examining the effects of declining global energy supplies on regional and national economies.

In the course of that analysis I realized that the regions that would be most affected by energy-driven reductions in GDP would also be those with the highest population growth rates. One region that was at particular risk was Africa.  That finding, along with recent reports that Africa will be threatened with food insecurity over the same period because of climate change and HIV/AIDS has prompted me to take this closer look at the future of the food situation in Africa.

This article examines the influences on African agriculture of rising oil prices, climate change, rising fertilizer prices, HIV/AIDS and potential improvements in agricultural productivity.  It then places these changes into the context of Africa's rising population, falling GDP, food import and distribution requirements and global food price inflation.

The analysis is conducted though a numerical model that uses the parameters discussed below.  The model is contained in a Microsoft Excel ® spreadsheet, available on-line here.  The model may be downloaded and the parameters altered to explore their effects on the outcome.

Parameters and Assumptions

The following fourteen factors are used in this model to estimate the changes in the African food supply picture over the next 40 years.  These are the parameters that can be changed if you choose to download the model.

Energy Supply

In the first paper of this series, World Energy to 2050, I derived the following curve for the global energy supply.  The peak and decline is due primarily to the  phenomenon of Peak Oil. That energy scenario is used in this paper, and is assumed to apply to Africa as much as it does to the developed world.

Overall, Africa has few other domestic energy supplies (coal, hydro or nuclear) with which to offset the decline of oil and natural gas.  The loss of energy supplies will affect all aspects of African life, from transportation and industrial activity to the stability of national electrical grids.  Many African countries already have severe energy problems from oil and gas shortages or unstable and under-supplied electrical grids.

Energy Intensity

In my analysis I use energy consumption as a proxy for economic activity, allowing me to make estimates of changes in economic performance over time.

Energy intensity is a measure of the amount of energy it takes to produce a dollar's worth of economic output.  This value varies widely between countries, depending on their level of industrialization, the mix of services and manufacturing in their economies, and the attention they pay to energy efficiency.

The American Energy Information Administration maintains extensive data on national energy intensity, all of which is summarized in this spreadsheet.  I used this data as the basis for my intensity projections.   I use a projection of African countries' energy intensities to predict how energy changes will influence the continent's overall economic performance in the next 4 decades.

In the case of Africa, a linear projection of the historical data indicates an ongoing improvement in energy intensity of about 0.5% per year.  As you can see, the trend is not terribly stable, and it could easily be less than that.


By combining the energy intensity change with the projected change in Africa's energy supply, I derived the following curves for Africa's energy consumption and their resulting economic performance:

Africa's GDP may drop to 40% of its current value by 2050, just due to the loss of energy supplies.

Population Growth

According to the United Nations 2004 Estimate (medium variant), Africa's population will double by the year 2050.  This gives an average population growth rate over 1.5% per year.  Combined with a falling GDP, this population increase results in a drastic decline in the continent's average per capita GDP by 2050:  it is projected to fall over 70% by then.

Climate Change

Much of African agriculture is rain fed. The actual amount ranges up to 96% of Sub-Saharan agriculture, according to the World Bank.   Rain fed agriculture is extremely vulnerable to any change in rainfall patterns.  Unfortunately, such a disruption is one of the early effects of climate change.  According to a recent estimate, climate change may reduce the yield of crops like maize by as much as 30% in Southern Africa over the next two decades.

This estimate has been incorporated in the model as a consistent 1% per year decline in agricultural output due to climate change.

Oil Prices

As the world's oil demand exceeds its supply by a greater and greater margin after the current production peak, oil prices will climb dramatically.  This will result in rich nations outbidding many poor nations for oil supplies on the world market.  Such oil as the poor nations do purchase will consume an ever-growing proportion of their ever-shrinking GDP.  While effect may be offset in some African countries that are still net exporters of oil, the majority of African nations need to import oil.  As a result they will be forced to compete in the world market with such economic powerhouses as the USA, Europe and China.

The model assumes that oil prices will rise proportionally to the depletion of global supplies.  From Africa's perspective this is an extremely optimistic estimate.  Given the price increases the world has already experienced, a fall of 50% in the global oil supply will more than double the price.

The increasing cost of oil appears in two places in the model.  The first is in the cost of domestic food production, where oil is assumed to represent 15% of the total input costs of agriculture.  The second place is in the distribution of food imports. Because almost all such transportation in Africa is by road, oil price increases will directly affect food distribution costs.

Fertilizer Prices

The cost of nitrogen fertilizer is determined largely (about 85%) by the cost of the natural gas feedstock.  As a result fertilizer prices track natural gas prices quite closely, and as gas prices have risen around the world the price of fertilizer has gone along for the ride.  This trend appears to be accelerating, as one would expect in a world of tight energy supplies.  In the last few years the price of nitrogen fertilizer has doubled, and this rise is showing no signs of leveling off.  Fertilizer prices expected to rise another 50% during 2008.

For the purposes of this model I have taken the average US fertilizer price over the last 25 years, and projected the trend out to 2050. This procedure indicates a rise of 600% over that time, which may be conservative given recent trends.

Rising world fertilizer prices will cause a reduction in fertilizer use in Africa, resulting in a decline in crop yields.  Rising prices will also add to the cost of domestic food production as well as inflating the price of food imports.

There are two significant facts about fertilizer use in Africa.  the first is that African farmers use only 10% of  the world average fertilizer per hectare .  One of the reasons for this is that fertilizer costs two to four times the world price, largely due to transportation costs inland from port cities.

The model incorporates fertilizer prices in two ways.  One is by projecting a decline in crop yields of 0.5% per year due to declining fertilizer use.  The other is by projecting an increase in the domestic cost of food production – the price increases of the above graph are incorporated into the cost of food production, assuming that fertilizer comprises 10% of the input costs of African agriculture.


HIV/AIDS is the most severe health problem that Africa faces.  It has a disproportionate impact because the disease mainly infects the most productive adult members of society.  In just the last year over 2.5 million Africans have died from AIDS, almost all of them between the ages of 18 and 45.  This has ripped the heart out of both industrial and agricultural productivity.

In a speech in 2004, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa stated that AIDS is causing a decline in GDP of 0.4 to 1.5% per year.  As a result, the model incorporates a 1.0% annual decline in GDP due to AIDS.  This decline completely wipes out any potential gains in economic energy intensity.

In the same speech the Executive Secretary also said that AIDS has "a tremendous negative impact on agricultural productivity".  The model assigns a further 1% per year decline to agricultural output to account for this effect.

Agricultural Productivity Increases

Offsetting the negative pressures on food production is a fairly speculative factor encompassing a variety of improvements in agricultural yield.  Such improvements might include more productive organic and no-till farming practices, more use of irrigation, clearing more land for agriculture and higher yields from hybridization or genetic modification programs.

The model incorporates the effect of such improvements by applying a  long-term 1.0% per year increase in yields after the negative pressures have been incorporated.

The Current Food Supply

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Africa imports about 28% of its calorie requirements.  The major imports are wheat (58% of requirements), rice (41% of requirements) and oils (54% of requirements).

The extent of this calorie shortfall and the low probability of growth in domestic production mean that every new mouth in Africa must be fed with imported food.  As the population grows and domestic food production shrinks the dependence on imports, either as purchases or foreign aid, will increase rapidly.

The model assumes a constant gross calorie requirement of 3100 calories per day per person, about what is consumed today.

Cost of Imported Food

Figures from the World Bank indicate that Africa's bill for food imports in 1985 was about $12.4 billion.  In 1995 the FAO estimated that by 2000 the food import bill would be $4.5 billion higher than in 1989.

Based on this information, the model assumes the total cost of continental African food imports in 2006 was $25 billion.

This estimate is also likely to be low, as the FAO also estimated that the total cost of food imports by Low Income Food Deficit Countries (a group that extends beyond Africa) was in the neigbourhood of $85 billion in 2006, and is projected to rise by 25% to $107 billion in 2007.

Cost of Domestic Food Production

It is very difficult to find estimates of the cost of domestic food production in Africa.  In order to establish a starting point for the model I have assumed that it costs the same amount to produce one calorie of food domestically as it does to buy it on the world market.

This approach ignores the intricacies of exchange rates, various forms of arbitrage and especially the different costs of agricultural inputs in various regions of the world.  However, given the commodetization and globalization of the world food market, it seems like a fairly realistic assumption.

Cost of Distributing Food Imports

As mentioned in the section on oil prices, the cost of fuel is the primary determinant of the distribution costs for imported food.  The model assumes that the distribution cost of a calorie of food today is about what it costs to purchase the food.  As a result, distribution costs double the cost of imported food.  While this may seem high at first glance, I can point to the data given above on the impact of transportation costs on fertilizer prices as a justification for this factor.

In the model, distribution costs rise in direct proportion to the decline in the oil supply.  As previously mentioned, this factor is probably too optimistic – transportation costs are likely to soar as the world's oil supply depletes.

Inflation of Food Imports

The price inflation of imported food will be one of the most significant factors in the overall cost of Africa's food supply. There have been recent news reports of increases in the price of staples such as corn, wheat, milk etc.  This inflation is being driven by a number of factors, chief among them supply reductions due to climate change, the increasing demand for meat in developing nations, and competition from biofuel production.

Inflation reports range from 50% for wheat futures to an FAO projection of 30% to 40% for oils, coarse grains and wheat.  In light of these predictions, the model uses a relatively conservative long-term inflation factor for imported foods of 10% per year.

Now that you have an understanding of the factors I used and how I think they fit into the picture, let's run the model and see what it tells us.

The Results

The first projection we will examine is the relative contributions of domestic food production and food imports.  In the graph below, the blue section represents domestic production.  It declines over time due to the constraints on yields discussed above - climate change, HIV/AIDS, reductions in fertilizer use, etc.

The red area indicates the amount of imported food that will be required to give each member of Africa's growing population an average gross allotment of 3100 kilocalories per day.

From the above graph we can see that the proportion of imported food rises rapidly over time, due to the rising population and falling domestic productivity.  The changing proportion is directly illustrated in the next graph.

From a proportion of 28% today, the amount of food imports rises to 50% of Africa's total food requirement in ten years (by 2018), and finally to over 80% by 2050.  This massive rise in Africa's dependency on food imports is ominous from many perspectives.

First, the required amount of food may simply not be available on the world market, especially if climate change continues to disrupt world grain harvests.  This will lead to increasing shortages in many food importing countries.

Second, the world food supply may be further constrained by biofuel production if international agreements are not reached to limit its production from food sources.  That constraint will further heighten Africa's food insecurity.

Third, African countries will become more and more vulnerable to the use of food as a weapon in both international and internal conflicts

Fourth and most important, the global cost of food is already rising steeply and is showing no signs of abating.  Price inflation for imported food will add to the effects of growing population, reduced domestic yields and a shrinking world food market, and will rapidly make a difficult situation intolerable.

The above graph shows the economic end-game for Africa.  Today, the continent appears to spend about 5% of its total GDP on food, both for domestic production and to pay for food imports.

Under the assumptions of this model the proportion of the continent's GDP spent on food will rise to 10% in the next eight years, to 20% by 2021 and to 50% by 2028.  If this trend were to continue unabated, spending on food would consume all the continent's money by 2033.

This end result is, of course, impossible.  No family, country or continent can spend all its money on food, because there are other essential needs like water and shelter that must also be met.  In addition, the economy needs other activity to generate the money to buy imported food. That implies that a certain amount of economic activity must be maintained to provide a stream of revenue.

Obviously something will happen between now and 2030 to interrupt the smooth acceleration of that last graph.  What are the likely candidates?


The maximum percentage of a country's economy that can be dedicated to buying food and still permit it to maintain social cohesion will vary.  A lot will depend on such factors as the efficiency of their industrial sector, the amount of international food aid available, the strength of their political and legal systems and the extent of tribal, ethnic and class divisions.

Looking at a variety of African nations already experiencing some degree of dissolution, I would estimate that the breaking point comes somewhere between 25% and 40% of their GDP. From the curve in the previous graph, that point would seem to arrive around the year 2025.

There is a major caveat regarding this kind of projection, however.

The graphs describe an "average" situation, spread over the entire continent.  Unfortunately, life and nations do not work just "on average".  At any point in time there will be a "bell curve" of situations spread out on both sides of that average number.  For instance, if the model projects that the continental average spending on food is 40% of the total GDP, there will be some countries well below that number.  They may be spending 10% of their GDP on food, and are therefore in relatively good shape.  On the other side of the bell curve there will be countries whose expenditures have already reached 60% or more, and that are in the process of disintegrating due to social upheaval and famine.  When you look at averages there is a constant danger that you will lose sight of significant variations.  After all, the current "averaged" numbers include Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi and South Africa, countries that are poles apart in opportunities and challenges.


One reasonable way to approach these projections, I think, is to assume that doubling the proportion of money the continent spends on food would approximately double the number of people in nutritional distress.  This would mean that the number of malnourished people would double between now and 2014, double again between 2015 and 2021, and go to eight times the current level by 2025.

At the moment there are over 200 million undernourished people in Africa, over 20% of the continent's population.  If this number were to rise by four times between now and 2020, a full two thirds of the continent would be malnourished.  Only five years after that, in 2025, virtually the entire continent would be starving.

Infant Mortality

What are the likely effects in places that fall below this "average outcome"?  On the ground it will look like outright starvation, but in the statistics it will appear as a drastic leap in infant mortality rates.  The next graph correlates infant mortality with per capita GDP in 178 of the world's 193 countries:

The message is clear.  As per capita GDP falls below about $3,000 per year the infant mortality rate skyrockets, as babies are born into increasingly precarious circumstances.  The average infant mortality rate in Africa is presently 91 per 1,000 live births compared to about 5 per 1000 in Europe.  The implication of this graph is that as Africa's per capita GDP drops due to the effects of energy decline and population growth, infant mortality rates will rise – perhaps to double or triple their current level.  While this will have the effect of slowing population growth, the human cost will be enormous.

Life Expectancy

Among adults, malnutrition will lower life expectancies.  The following graph shows a similar (though not quite as strong) correlation between income and life expectancy:

As we saw above with infant mortality, life expectancy is also linked to income, and again reductions become more pronounced as incomes drop below $3,000.  Across the continent, life expectancy averages between 50 and 55 years, with higher numbers in the more developed north and lower numbers in the AIDS-afflicted south. Life expectancies have been declining in recent years, largely due to the AIDS pandemic.  As incomes drop and food shortages add the stress of malnutrition, that decline will continue.  It would not surprise me to see the average fall by ten years or more between now and 2025.


All in all, the future of Africa is beyond grim when one looks out just a decade or two.  Declining food production, rising food prices, shrinking economic activity and a continuation of the HIV/AIDS pandemic paint a picture of human distress that is beyond endurance.

The scale of the crisis is about to spiral well beyond anything the world's humanitarian agencies can cope with.  Food aid to Africa has already been falling in recent years.  American aid, constituting half of all international food assistance, has declined by 43%  in the last 5 years.  Although some of the reasons for this may be rectified, it's utterly unrealistic to expect food aid shipments to Africa to triple or quadruple over the next two decades.  After all, the world cannot even meet the Millennium Development Goal of contributing 0.7% of their GDP to foreign aid.

The continent is facing an inevitable human catastrophe of incomprehensible proportions.  It's impossible to say at this point where the population of Africa might stabilize, but it seems certain that it will be below its present level of 900 million.  Based on the clues in this analysis, I would hazard a guess that a population of under 500 million by 2050 would be probable.  If there is to be a global Malthusian crisis over the next century, as some analysts believe, then this is a picture of how and where it begins.

So what do we do about it?
The roots of the problem are rapid population growth in Africa (and across much of the developing world) and rising global food prices.  Both these factors must be attacked as vigorously as possible.

First, the developed world must get its act together when it comes to foreign aid.  Our lack of performance with regard to the Millennium Development Goals is beyond contemptible.  A minuscule sliver of the GDP of the richest nations could help prevent a catastrophic outcome for hundreds of millions of people and scores of countries.  That we have failed our African brothers and sisters so egregiously is a shame that should follow all of us into the afterlife.

Second, and most importantly, we must develop an immediate crash program of education and contraception in all the regions at risk from this gathering storm.  Africa may be the first, but the conditions are ripe for much of South Asia to follow in their footsteps. We must blanket Africa with schools and family planning clinics.  We must carpet the continent with condoms.  Free, universal access to health care, family planning services, contraception and education is the key to making whatever difference can still be made before this disaster strikes.

Now is not the time to stand on ideological or religious principles against contraception.  Every African birth that is not prevented from now on will become a child or young adult who will die an agonizing death with a swollen, empty belly.  Such ghastly torment must surely be an affront to both Man and God.

I urge everyone who reads this to start by writing one letter, making one donation, doing one thing to address this looming horror.  You could donate 0.7% of your income to an international charity. You'll be surprised how small a sacrifice it really is. Then write a politician asking why your country can't do the same.

Our right to call ourselves human rests on our response to this catastrophe.  There is no time left; we must act now.
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About author/contributor Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka)
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Member: chefurka (Bodhisantra (Paul) Chefurka) I am a Canadian ecologist with a passionate interest in outside the box responses to the converging crisis of industrial civilization.

The crisis of civilization is not simply a convergence of technical, environmental and organizational problems.  These are symptoms that are themselves being driven by a philosophical and perceptual disconnection so deep that it is best understood as a spiritual breakdown.  The disconnection goes by the name of Separation.

Our sense of separation is what allows us to see ourselves as different from and superior to the rest of the apparently non-rational universe we live in.  In this worldview the complex mutual interdependence of all the elements of the universe is replaced by a simple dualistic categorization:  there are human beings, and everything else in the universe—without exception—is a resource for us to use.

The only way to keep this planet, our one and only home in the universe, from being ultimately ravaged and devastated is to change our worldview and heal our sense of separateness.  Unless we can manage that breathtaking feat all the careful application of technology, all the well-intentioned regulations, all the unbridled cleverness of which we are so proud will do little to delay the final outcome, and nothing whatever to prevent it.

My desire is to find ways to heal that sense of separation, with the goal of helping us prepare for ecological adulthood.

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