By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI, May 15 (AlertNet) - Africa needs to boost agricultural productivity and address the debilitating hunger that affects 27 percent of its population if it is to sustain its economic boom, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) said on Tuesday.
African economies grew at an average of more than 5 percent during the past decade with many countries benefiting from surging commodity prices, as well as growth in services, construction and agriculture.
But the character of the growth has done little to reduce extreme poverty and hunger. More than 40 percent of African children under five are malnourished, which means they suffer irreversible mental and physical disabilities, the UNDP said.
"The situation is quite bleak," said Sebastian Levine, a UNDP policy adviser for Africa. "This economic resurgence that we have seen has not really had the impact that we would expect."
Africa is the second fastest growing region after Asia, yet 48 percent of people were found to be living in poverty in 2008, compared to just 14 percent in East Asia and the Pacific.
Africa continues to be a net importer of food despite an abundance of fertile land and water.
In its first Africa Human Development Report, "Towards a Food Secure Future", the UNDP called for more investment in agriculture to ensure sustained growth and poverty reduction.
"If you don't address food security, you'll not be able to sustain this (growth)," Pedro Conceicao, UNDP's chief economist for Africa, told AlertNet.
"In the long run, you will need populations that are healthy, that are educated, and that are able to be productive."
Ghana became the first Sub-Saharan African country to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving hunger by 2015 partly by focusing on policies that encouraged smallholder cocoa farmers to boost output, the report said.
It also recommended policies that boost nutrition, such as school feeding programs and fortification of food with vitamins and iodine, and increase people's ability to withstand shocks such as drought.
The report said investment in agricultural productivity was important not only for reducing hunger but also in creating jobs for Africa's rapidly growing population, which is predicted to double to 2 billion by 2050.
"The demographic dynamics in Africa present a huge opportunity for the continent. We have seen in many countries that this usually results in more rapid rates of economic growth," said Conceicao.
Agriculture could provide jobs for many young people.
"If agriculture becomes much more effective and much more interesting in terms of utilizing and drawing on the skills of youth in new technologies, it will attract a whole new generation of youth and it will create job opportunities," Levine said.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro; Editing by David Clarke)