In Guns, Germs and Steel, his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the rise of civilization, Jared Diamond argued that geographical and environmental factors largely shaped the modern world. Populations with access to regular rainfall, fertile soil and animals that could be easily domesticated usually developed richer, more technologically sophisticated societies, he wrote.
Diamond, a professor of physiology at the University of California School of Medicine, ranks sub-Saharan Africa's overall environment near the bottom among places well suited for human development. “Food production was delayed in sub-Saharan Africa by Africa's paucity of domesticatable native animal and plant species [and] its much smaller area suitable for indigenous food production,” he wrote. By comparison, he argued, Europe and Asia and North America are more suited for domestic agriculture, offering pigs, plants like wheat and large fertile areas for cultivation.
While most experts acknowledge the role played by environmental factors in Africa's periodic bouts with starvation, they place much of the blame on manmade causes, such as corruption, war and agricultural inefficiency spawned by colonialism.
Still, Mother Nature does play an important role. Much of Africa's land resists efficient, profitable farming. “The land in many parts of Africa just doesn't support as many people as is necessary,” says Donald Mavunduse, an emergency-program adviser with Actionaid, a relief group based in London.
Poor soil fertility is part of the problem, especially in southern Africa. “Because many areas haven't had volcanic or glacial activity in hundreds of millions of years, they now have dry and weathered soil,” says James Newman, a geology professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship. “This isn't the kind of soil you want for growing things. You want soil that's recently been unearthed and that's still rich.”
In addition, sub-Saharan Africa's weather often leaves farmers with either too much or too little rainfall. “What you have is essentially a monsoon climate, with periods of great drought and great rainfall,” Newman says, which makes life very hard for farmers.”
Compounding the problem, African farmers in many places have not developed irrigation as a tool to protect against the unpredictable rainfall, says Jonathan Clarke, a fellow at the libertarian CATO Institute. “Farmers are completely at the mercy of the weather patterns,” he says.
In the past, Newman says, Africans compensated for such problems by maintaining diverse food sources. In addition to cultivating fields, he says, “They kept livestock, hunted and gathered wild produce to supplement their diet and cultivated different crops in different areas.”
But population growth, colonialism and urbanization changed everything. Indeed, Africa's population has ballooned to 800 million and is expected to more than double in the next 50 years. “You need a lot of territory to maintain diverse food sources, and that just isn't possible with more and more people,” Newman says.
Colonial boundaries also restricted the movement of nomadic peoples and created European-style farms raising cash crops meant for export, like coffee and cocoa. “Europeans restricted the amount of land available to indigenous people, and land ownership [by the newcomers] made it impossible to move around in search of new things to eat,” Newman says.
In the post-colonial period, urbanization also has played a role, as Africans have left the land in increasing numbers and moved to the cities. According to the U.N., some of the world's fastest-growing urban areas are in Africa, many in the countries hit hardest by famine, such as Malawi and Ethiopia.
Urban dwellers in Africa are often entirely dependent on inefficient farming sectors and governments that do not serve their needs. Prices can fluctuate wildly and, for the very poor, food can quickly become out of reach.
“Africans are wonderful at coping, but a lot of them have to deal with forces that are completely out of their control,” Newman says.”