There are large differences among continents in the prevalence of severe food insecurity. Approximately 27.4% of the population in Africa was classified as severely food insecure in 2016, which is almost four times as high as any other region. Alarmingly, food insecurity is on the rise, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa. From 2014 to 2016, food insecurity increased by about 3% (FAO, 2017).

Table 1. Percentage and number of people affected by severe food insecurity in 2016 

Percentage Millions
World 9.3 (± 0.4) 688.5 (± 27.6)
Africa 27.4 (±0.7) 333.2 (±8.6)
Asia 7.0 (± 0.6) 309.9 (± 26)
Latin America 6.4 (± 0.3) 38.3 (± 2.0)
Northern America and Europe 1.2 (±0.1) 13.0 (±1.3)
Source: FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO. 2017. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017. Building resilience for peace and food security. Rome, FAO.

Chronic undernutrition contributes to stunting in children under five years of age. This means that the child is too short for his or her age, which can have long-term negative impacts on health and development. The prevalence of stunting is highest in the eastern, middle, and western sub-regions of Africa, as well as Southern Asia and Oceania according to estimates in 2016. Prevalence of stunting has decreased in most regions, with reductions in the sub-regions of Africa being the slowest to decrease (FAO, 2017).

Acute undernutrition contributes to wasting in children under five years of age. This means that the child is too thin for his or her height. Childhood wasting is attributed to higher risk of disease and death. The prevalence of wasting in Africa was estimated to be 7.4% in 2016 (FAO, 2017).

What are the causes of hunger?

Food insecurity and hunger are caused by many factors, often being intertwined with one another. In general, the principal causes of hunger include poverty, conflict, climate and weather, lack of investment in agriculture, and unstable markets. (World Food Programme, 2018).  Note: This is not an exhaustive list; See factsheet on hunger and nutrition. 


Poverty is a principal cause of hunger in Africa and elsewhere. Individuals living in poverty often cannot afford food of sufficient quality or quantity to live a healthy life. According to the World Bank, in 2013, 42.3% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lived on $1.90 or less per day, a principal factor of widespread hunger. Poverty is often a cycle. Children exposed to long-term undernutrition are often stunted, leading to long- term consequences including decreased labor productivity and income-earning potential (FAO, 2017).


Conflict and violence can have direct and indirect impacts on all levels of the food system, leading to food insecurity and hunger. Conflict often puts constraints on employment and income opportunities, which affects an individual’s ability to acquire food. Conflict can also affect exports and imports, which can lead to limited food availability and affordability. Availability of food can also be affected if resources (land, equipment, etc.) used to produce food are destroyed during times of conflict (FAO, 2017).

In 2017, conflict was the major cause of food insecurity and hunger in 18 countries, affecting about 74 million individuals. Eleven of these countries were in Africa, which totaled about 37 million people. Northern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan account for the majority of these individuals (Food Security Information Network, 2018). Since 2013, South Sudan has experienced ongoing conflict, which has caused an increase in food insecurity. In 2017, parts of South Sudan declared famine (see image below), and more than 42% of the population faced severe food insecurity (FAO, 2017).

Global estimates of undernourishment rose from 777 million in 2015 to 821 million in 2017. Africa has the highest prevalence of undernourishment, estimated in 2016 to be 20% of the population. This is especially alarming in Eastern Africa, where it is suspected that one-third of the population is undernourished. Due primarily to its larger population size, Asia has the highest total number of undernourished individuals—520 million, versus Africa’s 243 million (FAO, 2017).


Environmental challenges—including erosion, desertification, deforestation, and drought and water shortages—can have detrimental impacts on food security. In 2017, 23 countries experienced food crises due to climate and weather conditions. Two-thirds of these countries were in Africa, affecting approximately 32 million people.

As stated above, the causes of hunger are often intertwined. For example, in 2017, Uganda faced food insecurity due to a drought that occurred in 2016. During this period, Uganda was already experiencing food insecurity due to an influx of refugees (Food Security Information Network, 2018).  The environmental challenges from drought increased poverty and hunger by reducing agricultural production and people’s incomes.

Many of these challenges are man-made. Deforestation, for example, is caused by humans seeking new places to live, farm, or obtain firewood. Drought, water shortage and desertification in Africa all reduce agricultural productivity and thus food availability.

Some Other Factors


As mentioned above, there is a clear connection between conflict and hunger, but poor governance and policies also lead to hunger due to insufficient access to food.

Many countries have seen progress in reducing hunger among their citizens after implementing policies that increase food security. For example, in the early 2000s, Ethiopia invested in agricultural research and extension, leading to increases in food availability. This increased investment in infrastructure helped move crops to markets, increasing food access (IFPRI, 2017).

Consuming poor-quality food can lead to malnutrition. Policies such as food fortification programs can increase the availability of nutritious foods. The implementation of iodine fortification programs in countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have been successful (Mijumbi, 2011).

Population growth

Africa’s population has increased rapidly, from 221 million in 1950 to 1.2 billion in 2018. Africa has the highest population growth rate among world regions; between 2010 and 2015, it grew at a rate of 2.55% per year. It is estimated that more than half of the global population growth between now and 2050 will occur in Africa (United Nations, 2018). Rapid population growth can limit increases in per capita income, causing poverty and hunger.

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