Moroccan Dishes

This data-driven editorial takes on the task of visualizing Africa's bits of food across four connected domains: population, food production, trade value, and agricultural emissions.

Using data made available by the UN's Food and Agriculture (FAO) data portal, we consider Africa's general position in the global scope and offer more detailed country-specific views.

Naturally examination of the past and present invites prediction tools; likewise comparative elements welcome organizational structures. We offer visual models for both, as well as a review of opportunities for fuller understanding.

Emmanuel Obuobi for PICHA

The Man Who Counts the Bits of Food He Swallows Is Never Satisfied.

Proverb, Africa

1. Zooming In On Africa

While domain experts debate the earth's carrying capacity, human presence continues to multiply. The population growth rate has slowed globally, but Africa maintains a steady pace: from 1963 to 2013 the continent inflated its share of the world's population from 9.5% to 15.6%.

That 'bigger stake' has not translated into a flourishing food production industry. Africa has improved its food balance sheets, though not in proportion to its human needs. Export trade value has remarkably declined over the fifty year period as many countries deal with political instability and extreme climate variability. Even so, livestock and agricultural products remain one of the most promising sectors for traditionally agrarian economies.

Environmental concerns should register as a primary alarm in Africa. Since 1963 emissions related to fertilization and cultivation have doubled. Other related indicators should also be considered in future study, including land use, livestock husbandry, pesticide application, industrial processes and waste.

Fig 1. Africa / World =

To better understand Africa's position in the world, this visualization allows toggle viewing from two angles: aggregate total ('#') and percent change ('%').

The center composition offers a high-level view of the trends from 1963 to 2013 - the year labels serve as handles to control the modular legend data.

Legend results are ordered hierarchically with more granular detail, including calculations that compare Africa to the world over time.

2. Africa Is Not A Country

Defining Africa as a single unit is an often made, misleading over-simplification. It is a continent, composed of a collection of countries with at least as many differences as similarities. The 20th Century was a liberating period for many nations as colonial bindings were persistently broken. In this context it especially important to consider historical and cultural factors before making hasty conclusions from numerical outcomes.

Regrettably the scope of this study does not include such germane analyses but instead offers the opportunity to discern features of a nation's food economy that might lead to useful comparative and critical leads and insights. For example, to rebalance unnecessary dependencies on import products or to discover new, promising opportunities for export products, leaders in the sector should evaluate not only their portfolio but also the results of neighbors that share similar biotopes and markets.

For further study it may helpful to define past and present political and trade relationships that might point to serve as platforms for improved efficiencies.

Fig 2. A Country-Specific View of Trends over 50 Years for each Domain

For each domain, we show a breakdown of the high level data into more detailed components. (e.g. Tonnes of Cassava produced by each country, or Africa as a whole).

The shading on the map shows the relative contribution of each country in 2013. The timeline to the left shows change over time.


3. Uneven Playing Ground

In a world of even distribution, a country with X% of the world's population should be responsible for X% of the world's food production, trade value and emissions. Of course such a point-of-view is both naïve and quixotic, and yet some standard must be offered as a basis for comparison.

When represented graphically, the shape of each African country takes on a distinct shape in comparison to population-defined standards for Africa and the world. Even so most countries fall noticeably short of food production and trade value prescriptions, which is problematic for health and economy.

If a primitive linear predictive model based on the past 50 years is applied, these gaps will continue to widen. The UN, African Union and other organizations have composed goals to resolve these imbalances, not for the first time. To produce meaningful change, public and private stakeholders need to demonstrate similar conviction and commitment.

Fig 3. Venn Comparisons

Multi-variable comparison a selected country to Africa and the world by positioning each variable directionally on the x-y axis according to the country's percent population - a factor that is applied to food production, trade value and emissions.

Comparisons are dependent on country and year - the year options extend to 2063 using a simple linear formula based on trends from 1963-2013.

N.b. Previews appear on mouseover, including numerical summaries of each manufactured shape. Selections can be fixed / unfixed on click.

4. Not Enough?

Unsurprisingly the abstract nature of quantitative evaluation evades emotion and empathy. However the imbalance these number represent grim consequences for millions of people throughout the continent who do not have sufficient access to food resources. As of 2013, more than 200 million people in Africa are undernourished, and the UN's findings indicate that this figure is only increasing year-by-year.

The FOA began monitoring food security after establishing "Zero Hunger" as a core sustainable development goal at the beginning of the 21st century. The issue is complex - in recent years, indicators have expanded to include an array of factors related to availability, access, stability and utilization, as well as other social issues, including gender, family size and structure and education.

Surprisingly the food balance sheets for countries with considerable food security issues indicate that there is often sufficient production to meet the caloric needs, and so closer audit of food management is in order.

Fig 4. Malnourishment & Food Supply, 2013

Undernourishment results are organized center-out in the main module by continent, region and country. The results of a selection can be compared to the reported available food supply.

N.b. Regions can be expanded on click.

Knowledge is like a garden; if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested.

Proverb, Africa

Our Team

Jared Jessup

Jared Jessup is a freelance web developer who works on diverse projects related to African countries. He is passionate about enabling technologies for information design.

Kelly Wang

Kelly Wang is a software engineer at a health tech company in Boston. Her background is in Computer Science and Fine Art, and she is always excited about unexpected intersections between technology and art.

Kaitlyn Germain

Kaitlyn Germain is a Scientist at a molecular insights biotechnology company in Cambridge. Her background is in biotechnology and forensic science. She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Data Science.

Minnie Cui

Minnie (Yuefeng) Cui is a data analytics manager at an industrial supply company in Chicago. Her background is in finance and operations research.