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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Susan, we're traveling next to a part of the developing world, where development seems stunted. Much of Africa missed out on the changes that swept other regions, and that is especially true in agriculture. Improvements in farming swept Latin America and Asia, yet south of the Sahara Desert, African nations still do not produce enough food for their own people.

That is one of the problems that Jason Beaubien has encountered again and again. He has finished four years in Africa for NPR News. And today, he continues a week-long examination of the world's poorest continent.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Life is hard in sub-Saharan Africa - in part, because it's tough place to be a farmer. The majority of Africans earn their livings through agriculture, most as subsistence farmers. And African soil is some of the least productive in the world.

(Soundbite of cowbell)

BEAUBIEN: In western Tanzania, herders graze small Zebu cattle. The herds of stocky, almost miniature cows migrate across the plains of the Rift Valley. The animals can survive in what is at times a harsh, semi-arid environment. But they don't produce nearly as much milk or beef as Western breeds.

(Soundbite of water flowing)

(Soundbite of bird chirping)

BEAUBIEN: Sedentary farmers in the area grow mainly sorghum and maize. Corn production, however, is erratic. Some of the small spots have rows of tall, study corn plants. Others are dusty expanses of failed crops.

Fifty-four-year-old Amelio Nande says he gets less and less food each year from his five-acre field.

Mr. AMELIO NANDE (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He says the land has become less productive mainly because of drought. Nanda grows corn and a little bit of rice. He says he keeps most of his crop to feed his family. He sells a portion of his harvest each year at the local market. This is his only source of cash. So the drop in productivity of his land directly affects his family's income. But he says there's little he can do about it.

Mr. NANDE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: If you put fertilizer here, he says, it will burn the plants. It's too much. He also doesn't rotate his crops. There's no irrigation, and Nande believes the amount he harvests is entirely dependent on rainfall.

In much of sub-Saharan Africa, subsistence farmers operate this way. They use simple techniques that haven't changed for generations. As nutrients get leeched from the soils and Africa's population grows, the gap between the amount of food produced and the amount needed grows wider.

Mark Rosegrant, with the International Food Policy Research Institute, says the solution to Africa's overall food problem is still a long way off.

Mr. MARK ROSEGRANT (International Food Policy Research Institute): When we look at our, you know, longer-term projections in Africa, there's still going to be a period where imports are going to be increasing substantially. So they're going to be relying both on increased market imports, but also inevitably, I think there's going to be still considerable need for a concessionary and food aid type imports of food.

BEAUBIEN: And Rosegrant says unless there are significant policy shifts, the need for food aid and the number of malnourished Africans will increase in the coming decades.

In southern Africa, Zimbabwe used to produce enough grain to feed most of the region. Zimbabwe's commercial farms, however, were owned by a small white minority. Most of those farms were destroyed in a chaotic land reform program launched in the year 2000. Apart from South Africa and a few other places, most of the continent hasn't adopted modern agricultural practices. This has led to huge disparities between farm production in Africa and the rest of the world.

For instance, an average farmer in Belgium produces almost 30 times as much grain per acre as a farmer in Eritrea. And Africa also lags behind the rest of the developing world in food production. In parts of Latin America and Asia, agricultural reform movements dramatically increase production, at times doubling - even tripling - crop yields.

Rosegrant says the green revolution in Asia spurred overall economic growth in the region.

Mr. ROSEGRANT: If you look at Asia, all of the real take-off countries initiated that take-off in overall economic growth through a very rapid growth in the agriculture sector. I think that's still going to be a key in most of Africa.

You know, you can have your, you know, Botswana, for example, which can make it on diamonds and minerals. But most of the countries, unless you can get income growth in agriculture - which then also enables labor to move into non-agriculture - you're just not going to get that overall GDP growth.

BEAUBIEN: At times it's easy to forget exactly how poor some African nations are. The gross domestic products of Liberia, Burundi, and Sierra Leone are all less than some individual hedge fund managers earned in 2005. In sub-Saharan Africa, 44 percent of the population - or more than 300 million people - still live on less than a dollar a day. And despite billions of dollars of aid flowing into the continent each year, the number of people in extreme poverty is growing.

Rosegrant, with the IFPRI, cautions that a green revolution in Africa will be more difficult to achieve than in Asia. There isn't one stable crop, such as rice or wheat, in Africa that could expand rapidly. Also, roads and other infrastructure on the continent are worse than in Asia. And Africa is now in the midst of the AIDS pandemic.

(Soundbite of people at AIDS clinic)

BEAUBIEN: At a health clinic in Malawi, Nellie Ababu(ph) has come to pick up her monthly ration of AIDS drugs.

Ms. NELLIE ABABU (Resident, Malawi): (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: My husband died, Ababu says, and he was the one who used to grow the food for us. Ababu's husband died of AIDS in 2004. She's also HIV positive. The 35 year old is now left with six children to feed, including her youngest daughter, who's strapped to her back.

Ms. ABABU: (Speaking foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: The food problem is very grave this year, Ababu says. Our fields need fertilizer, but I can't afford to buy fertilizer.

Her husband used to grow corn, beans, and peanuts. Ababu says she planed their plot again this year, but harvested nothing. She survives by doing casual labor. She hauls water for brick makers for less than 50 cents a day.

Penelope Howarth, with the World Food Program in Blantyre, says 80 percent of Malawians are subsistence farmers.

Ms. PENELOPE HOWARTH (World Food Program): That's not irrigated subsistence agriculture. They're praying for the rain, and when the rain doesn't come at the right time, people are left with nothing. Or cobs of maize that won't feed them for, you know, a week.

BEAUBIEN: Even in years when the local crops haven't failed, the country is heavily dependent on international food aid. The WFP is almost half the population of Malawi is chronically malnourished. The government has been giving away small foot pumps to farmers to try to increase the use of irrigation in Malawi. And across Africa, there are other targeted programs trying to invigorate agriculture.

Revamping farming methods on the world's poorest, hungriest continent is a huge challenge, but vital to the continent's future.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Jason's series continues tomorrow with a look at how bad governance has held Africa back.

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INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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