If you’ll forgive a very rough gloss, Homo sapiens originated in sub-Saharan Africa about 200,000 years ago, spread out across Eurasia and, eventually, into the Americas. In the last two centuries, the cultural and technological changes brought by the Industrial, Green, and Information Revolutions flowed back to the corners of the globe where humanity first arose. It’s been a long trip, but we seem to be approaching the end of this particular journey.
The bad news is that Africa is still a basket case. By almost any quality-of-life measure, it ranks at the bottom of the list. And while some of these problems are political or endemic to the place due to its geography, the good news is that the continent may finally have reached the point where the things that have brought much of the rest of the world out of its natural squalor can finally be applied there as well.
Via The Economist, one of the biggest opportunities for improvement is by modernizing African agriculture. Mechanization might be part of that, but the biggest gains will likely come from applying the technology of the Green Revolution, particularly through hybrid and (very likely) GMO versions of the staples that constitute Africans’ diet. The reason this hasn’t happened already is simple:
[C]rops and diets differ a lot across the continent. In Rwanda, white maize and beans are the staple foods. In other places millet, teff, sorghum, cassava or sweet potatoes are more important. Asia’s green revolution was a comparatively simple matter, says Donald Larson of the World Bank, because Asia has only two crucial crops: rice and wheat. Provide high-yield varieties of both and much of the technical work is done. African agriculture is so heterogeneous that no leap forward in the farming of a single crop could transform it. The continent needs a dozen green revolutions.
This is actually beginning to happen, both in terms of the adoption of better farming techniques and through improved crops. Unfortunately, activists are busy protesting these very things, including human trials of a new strain of GMO cooking bananas that contain additional beta carotene, which metabolizes into Vitamin A. (Millions of people who eat such bananas suffer from Vitamin A deficiency; if you’re familiar with Golden Rice, this is essentially the plantain equivalent.) There’s little reason to suppose this would do anything but provide millions of people the ability to earn a living by feeding many millions more. But activists are treating it as the banana-based version of the Tuskegee Experiment, even if the first human trials are being conducted on (overwhelmingly white) students at Iowa State University.
If you couple this with the slow social improvements in the continent, as well as the spectacular improvements we’ve made against some of its natural scourges (even while holding back our heaviest weapons against the biggest killers), millions more Africans might be able to have the stability and resources to build better, more just, and more prosperous societies.
It’s not a total solution, but you have to start somewhere.