Famine and hunger in Africa: What you need to know

by Chris Huber, World Vision on May 5, 2017

In the midst of all the conflicting headlines you see each day, you’ve probably heard about hunger in Africa and the famine crisis there.

Here are a few basic facts about drought, famine, malnutrition, and hunger in Africa as well as what World Vision is doing in response and how you can participate.

What’s the current situation with hunger in Africa?

Millions of people in Africa are experiencing chronic hunger and the threat of famine. Conflict, recurring severe drought, and high food prices are to blame. People are starving to death — right now.

Hunger and malnutrition are expected to worsen in East Africa through the peak of the lean season in July.

In East Africa alone — South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia — 25 million people need food assistance. More than 3.5 million children are suffering from severe malnutrition, which is well above globally acceptable rates.

Africa hunger facts you need to know

  • An estimated 1.4 million children could die this year from famine-like conditions in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen, according to the U.N. children’s agency.
  • Kenya’s government expects that 4 million people will need help by July 2017; about 700,000 Kenyan children younger than 5 are facing starvation.
  • Disease outbreaks have plagued Ethiopian communities amid worsening food insecurity.
  • Crop and livestock losses and water shortages in Somalia have caused more than 440,000 people to leave their homes since November 2016.
  • Severe drought and widespread food insecurity are ravaging entire communities in Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, parts of the Southern Africa region, and in Yemen, on the Arabian peninsula, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS).
  • About 10.7 million people need humanitarian assistance in the Lake Chad Basin, which includes northeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, eastern Niger, and southwestern Chad. More than 500,000 children are suffering severe levels of malnutrition. The refugee and food crises have swelled for two years due to ongoing extremist attacks and mass displacements in the region.

Help is necessary to keep the Africa hunger and food crises from worsening. Children, especially those younger than 5, are the most vulnerable because they need critical nutrients to build strength and immunity against disease.

East Africa food insecurity map

Severe drought and widespread food insecurity are also ravaging entire communities in Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, parts of the Southern Africa region, and Yemen, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.


Why are people in Africa facing chronic hunger and famine?

Recurring drought, conflict, and instability have led to severe food shortages. Many countries have struggled with extreme poverty for decades. So they lack government and community support systems to help their struggling families.

A compressed cycle of recurring drought is plunging the same communities into drought again before they have a chance to recover sufficiently from the last one. It’s the roller-coaster that picks up speed and doesn’t seem to stop. The El Niños of the last two decades have played a significant role in these droughts.

In South Sudan, where people fled their homes because of violence, few farmers have been able to harvest a crop. This limits what is available at community markets and raises food prices. During the rainy season, 60 percent of the country is inaccessible by roads, which limits transportation of food aid as well as goods sent to market.

In such conditions, poor families can’t afford enough food to keep their children healthy, and eventually they need emergency help from government agencies or aid groups when they run out of money and food. We’re not talking low funds or food that’s been in our pantry past its expiration. We’re talking actually not having any money or any food at all — nothing.

The longer these factors persist, the harder it is for families to stave off the effects of lost livelihoods and homes.

I hear the word famine a lot, but how do you define famine?

Famine literally means an extreme scarcity of food. But it’s more than that — it’s the absolute worst-case scenario for a food crisis and has a technical definition used by the humanitarian community.

Keep in mind that not all food crises become famines. A food crisis becomes a famine when there’s so little food in the region that it causes large-scale starvation, malnutrition, and death.

South Sudan declared famine in February in two counties in Unity state with a population of about 100,000. Since then, enough aid has reached the area that famine is no longer in effect.

To declare famine, the following three things must all happen:

  • At least 20 percent of households in a given area face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  • More than 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition.
  • Hunger causes more than two deaths each day for every 10,000 people.

When a food crisis no longer meets these technical criteria, a famine is no longer in effect.

Why does it seem there’s always a hunger crisis in Africa?

Drought, poor harvests, and instability create a cycle that’s extremely difficult to break. And this happens in other regions of the world too.

When instability persists because of conflict or political problems, people flee their homes or are unable to plant their crops. Then less food gets harvested. Prices go up. Families’ livelihood prospects dwindle as markets close. Violent conflict makes situations worse because humanitarian groups often cannot access affected communities to bring emergency relief.

Droughts have become more frequent and intense in recent years in west, east, and southern Africa. Last year’s El Niño exacerbated weather-related problems. These droughts affect food-production systems in fragile contexts in similar ways that conflict does. Less food and water also means vast numbers of dead livestock in affected areas. This devastates families’ source of income and food.

And when 40 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa grow up stunted due to chronic malnutrition, they lack capacity to learn and contribute to society. It’s because their little bodies don’t get enough of the right nutrients at the right times to support physical and intellectual growth. Thus, their countries lose out on significant leadership and innovative potential, which perpetuates the human capital loss cycle.

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition refers to an unhealthy condition that develops when your body does not get enough of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs to function properly. So it can occur when you don’t eat enough food or you aren’t eating enough healthy food.

When food crises happen, some children are malnourished for long periods. This leads to stunting (being underweight for their age). Children who were already growing poorly when the food crisis began now risk becoming permanently stunted (being short for their age).

Those who are most at risk are experiencing severe acute malnutrition, known as severe wasting, according to World Vision’s nutrition experts. Their little bodies are beginning to lose the ability to absorb vital nutrients. So they’re literally starving to death. And they’re nine times more likely to die than a well-nourished child.

These children don’t just need more food. They need the right kind of food — nutrient-rich food treatment, commonly referred to as ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).

Medical workers often measure a child’s mid-upper arm circumference to gauge the level of malnutrition the child is experiencing. That’s why you may see photos of people wrapping a band with green, yellow, and red sections around a malnourished child’s tiny upper arm. Green indicates the child is not malnourished. Yellow indicates that they are malnourished. Red indicates that they are severe malnourished and at risk of death.

Malnutrition is the cause or a contributing factor to 45 percent of deaths among children younger than 5 globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Read more on the tragic, long-term effects of malnutrition.

How is World Vision responding to the Africa hunger and food crises?

World Vision has scaled up efforts in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and South Sudan to reach up to 2.2 million people with life-saving food, clean water and sanitation services, medical assistance, and livelihood skills training. Here are some highlights from our response so far:

  • More than 900,000 people reached with food-related assistance
  • 300,000 people reached with health and nutrition services
  • 544,000 people reached with water, sanitation, and hygiene services
  • 61,000 children reached with protection and education interventions
  • 30,034 people reached with shelter and household items

Funding provided through child sponsorship programs in Kenya and Ethiopia enabled our local staff to observe communities’ needs early, in 2016, before the crisis intensified. They responded accordingly, providing drought-resistant seeds and training for farmers, cash-for-work programs, and other interventions that help families avert crisis or weather it more confidently.

By the time the food crisis became full-fledged earlier this year, staff in South Sudan and Somalia were already helping communities struggling with food-insecurity and malnutrition due to conflict and years of persistent drought.

World Vision staff in Niger and Chad are working to help 300,000 people this year with emergency food aid, health and nutrition services, household items, and access to clean water. As of June 19, we have reached about 61,000 people.

When will people be able to get back to normal?

There’s no substitute for life-saving aid in an emergency. But World Vision also focuses on long-term solutions that build resilience, which allows families and communities to bounce back when crops fail or streams dry up. Livelihood skills training is one aspect of World Vision’s current responses that helps families find their own way out of a food crisis.

With long-term development programs in place, hunger crises can often be avoided and families can maintain independence. Here’s how World Vision is working today to prevent future food and hunger crises:

  • Farmers and pastoralists benefit from market development, immunizations for livestock, and training and seeds to grow drought-resistant crops.
  • Cash aid gives impoverished families the ability to take care of themselves and stimulates local markets.
  • Saving groups and community banks make loans that help members recover from emergencies.
  • Building and repairing water and sanitation facilities contributes to healthy living.
  • New business training, equipment, and materials can help families diversify their income so their assets are not wiped out by drought or adverse weather.
  • Developing resilience is a generational process. Children who stay in school are better prepared for the challenges and opportunities in their future.

How can I help the hunger crisis in Africa?

Your church can commit to pray to end famine for families and children suffering from hunger.
Your church can give to help fight the hunger crisis in East Africa. Because of grants, your gift will have 7x the impact!

Your church can respond to the hunger crisis


Kathryn Reid, in the World Vision US office, contributed to this article.

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