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Population, production and food in Sub-Saharan Africa

Cathy Chatel et Gwenaëlle Raton

According to J.P Raison and A. Dubresson, African agriculture is able to support an exceptional population growth whiles she never knew the Green Revolution nor agribusiness intervention (Raison et Dubresson, 1998). However, since then, the relationship between demography and agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa is still discussed in a binary way, opposing a "pessimistic" vision originating from T. Malthus (1798) to the "optimistic" position of E. Boserup (1981).

Recent works have shown that some countries in Sub-Saharan Africa experienced significant agricultural growth over several decades (OECD, SWAC, 2012) in a context of exceptional population growth and a strong fertility rate. Within this new framework, this special issue from Space, populations, societies aims to contribute to a better understanding of relationships between agriculture, demography and fulfillment of the nutritional needs in Sub-Saharan Africa. Its aim is to highlight these relationships at different spatial scales and temporalities, focusing on comparative approaches between city and countryside, quantitative approaches mobilizing small-scale historical data, and original methods of data crossing.

Methodological challenges and a paradigm shift

In Sub-Saharan Africa, data sources on demographical and agricultural changes are missing including sometimes uncertain relativity of the data. In addition, the cross analysis of times series, at national or regional scales, allows an indispensable step back from these dynamics but raises many methodological problems. Authors may state the contradictions concerning these data and provide reliable analysis methods.

In addition, population growth has often stimulated anxieties, so called Malthusian. These anxieties bring out whenever a society exceeds a critical threshold, such as that 50% of urban population, assuming a minor share of farmers for an increasing amount of people to feed. This special issue is too contribute to the change in the way relationships between demography and agriculture are analyzed, in particular by examining a variety of information on population growth on which fertility, urban and rural population, agricultural population, employment, production and agricultural productivity, food security, agrarian and trading systems and land use patterns.

Population, food availability and agriculture: can we talk about a joint growth?

In Sub-Saharan Africa, did the agricultural production rise in line with population? Does the production grow by increasing of agricultural yields or cultivated areas? Despite the extent of research on these topics, we know only partially answer these questions. Reality is complex because agriculture's performance depends on several factors, such as conflicts, climatic constraints, or economic choices, which are under-represented in the scientific literature. In addition, producing enough food does not mean food satisfaction and availability. The contributions on the trajectories of country and regions over time would be very much appreciated. Moreover, integrating the issue of food security and its relations with imports and food border traffic is an important topic of this special issue.

Living, using resources and consuming: the settlement patterns adaptations

Population growth transform the face of Sub-Saharan Africa and its cities that are more and more numerous, dense and widespread, but also of its countryside (Africapolis, 2009). Population growth implies an increasing land consumption for two reasons: people is living in this space and collect their agricultural resources. The analysis of land use changes, observed by the settlement densification or the expansion of cultivated land, shows that the issue of the demographic weight on the farmland is not only posed in terms of overcrowding, but in terms of adaptation of settlement forms to economic opportunities, whether these opportunities are local, regional or from a globalized economy.

This observation leads to develop a reflection both on fertility, rural and urban population growth and their spatial distribution. Population and settlement demonstrate the different types of land use: they are a significant indicator of that balance between people and their land, between urban and agricultural populations, between cities and countryside, that bring us to assess their impact on the ability of agriculture to meet the needs of the population.

Renewed relations between urban and rural areas

Demography and agriculture are often understood in terms of balance. A crucial question, though simple, is the subject of debate among Africanists: are rural areas still growing? The weight of agriculture, agricultural labor force and urbanity in society are questioned, while two positions are confronted. The first one assumes that population growth leads to the countryside densification and the transformation of rural society. Already, mutations appear to operate in the growth of multiple activities of rural people who maintain rural seasonal activity. The second one argues that beyond a certain density threshold, places that were until then rural can be considered as urban. We expect analyses at different scales to illustrate the diversity of recompositions between cities and countryside.


Abstract: 1st march 2017
Articles: 30th june 2017
Publication: November 2018


Chercheuse post-doctorante FAPESP/UNESP (Brésil)

Gwenaëlle RATON
Chargée de recherche IFSTTAR / Laboratoire SPLOTT


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