Food demand and forests in sub-Saharan Africa

With the support of country partners, IIED is conducting research to better understand existing and future competition and trade-offs between food production and natural forests, and the implications for land use policies in sub-Saharan Africa. 

April 2015 - ongoing
Phil Franks

Principal researcher (biodiversity), Natural Resources

Biodiversity and development
A programme of work showing how IIED is working to ensure biodiversity conservation, climate change and economic development are tackled together by the institutions that drive policy, rules, plans, investment and action
Women harvest their rice crop in Meceburi forest reserve, near Nampula, Mozambique (Photo: Mike Goldwater)

Women harvest their rice crop in Meceburi forest reserve, near Nampula, Mozambique (Photo: copyright Mike Goldwater) 

Africa is home to 25% of the world's remaining rainforests and 17% of all forests, and these provide habitat for much of the region's biodiversity. But the continent lost an estimated 15.6 million hectares of forest between 2010 and 2015, driven largely by agricultural expansion.

The role of agriculture as a driver of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is very different from the situation in other regions, and needs to be understood and addressed in the development context of SSA. 

The population of the SSA is projected to more than double in the next 35 years, from 937 million people in 2014 to 2.1 billion in 2050, a much higher rate of growth than in any other region. The combination of a growing population and expected continued economic growth is projected to triple domestic food demand in SSA between 2014 and 2050.

Historically increased food production to meet domestic food demand in SSA has, in the majority of countries in the region, come more from expansion of cropped area than yield increases. But SSA countries have also committed to substantially reducing and, in some cases halting, deforestation by 2030.  

What is IIED doing?

Early research by IIED's forest and biodiversity teams reveals that there is limited scope for meeting tripling domestic food demand in SSA by increasing food imports, reducing food waste and increasing crop yields.

Agriculture will, therefore, continue to expand in SSA, and to an extent that exceeds the current forest conservation targets of many countries in SSA. The competition and trade-offs between the Sustainable Development Goals of ending hunger and conserving forests need to be recognised, better understood, and, where necessary, proactively negotiated. 

A series of infographics were produced in March 2016 to highlight key findings from the research. They can be viewed on IIED's Flickr site or in the slideshow below. Click on the arrows to scroll through the charts, or click on the images to enlarge them and view them using Flickr.

Food demand and forests in Sub-Saharan Africa: infographic series

With the support of country partners, IIED is currently exploring the political economy behind these trade-offs to shed light on the opportunities and barriers to achieving more joined-up land use policy and planning for food and forests. This research is currently focused on Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Zambia. We are also working on Mai-Ndombe Province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

From 2017 to 2019, IIED is convening a Science for Nature and People Partnership (SNAPP) working group on Food Production and Forest Conservation in sub-Saharan Africa. Building on existing work by IIED and other thought leaders in the working group, the group aims to raise awareness and understanding of the disconnects and related risks and trade-offs within and between policies and strategies for food production and forest conservation in sub-Saharan Africa, and generate evidence and guidance to support better management of these risks and trade-offs. The first meeting took place in October 2017 and the most recent in March 2019.

IIED was also a partner in the Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) frontiers project on land-use intensification in forest-agriculture frontier landscapes: effects on ecosystem services and poverty alleviation, which reviews the current state of knowledge about how land use intensification shapes the changing trade-offs between land use, ecosystem services and poverty alleviation.