CHIKWAWA, Malawi, Oct 11 (Reuters): The green sugar cane fields of southern Malawi bear testimony to the fertile soil that blankets the sun-drenched land.
But aid agencies say 5 million people there, or close to half the population, need food aid-a shocking state of affairs in a country which should be a farmer's paradise.
From Niger in West Africa to mountainous Lesotho in the south, this scenario is repeating itself-relief operations under way to feed millions of people.
Africa's blessings need to be weighed against its curses, and the reasons for hunger vary from region to region.
"The hunger has different regional causes. In Niger, a large part of it was environmental. There were locust swarms and the bad rains," says Clare Rudebeck, a spokeswoman for aid agency Oxfam.
Desertification, caused in part by widespread deforestation, threatens to drive millions of Africans from their homes, a international report said earlier this year.
Such a process may already be having an impact on food security and is seen as a source of conflict between nomadic herders and pastoralists.
In southern Africa, where mass starvation is not imminent but where an estimated 12 million people need food aid to see them through to the April harvest, AIDS is the main culprit.
"Lack of rains is the trigger but the underlying causes are complex and include AIDS," Rudebeck said.
Workers in the prime of life are falling ill and succumbing to the pandemic, leaving the very young and the very old to do the back- breaking labour required on peasant plots-with obvious consequences for crop yields.
Demographics is another hindrance, as poor rural people view children as an asset and so have large families, meaning that population growth in many African countries is faster than economic growth.