(August 2003) Because HIV/AIDS affects people in their prime working ages, businesses are suffering severe effects from the epidemic. This is especially true in some sub-Saharan African countries, where as much as one-third of the working-age population is infected with HIV. In high-prevalence countries, HIV/AIDS is consuming business profits because of three primary factors: increased operating costs, decreased productivity, and declining markets.

HIV/AIDS was initially believed to be a primarily urban phenomenon, but it now clearly threatens the lives and livelihoods of rural communities throughout the less developed world. In many countries, agriculture provides a living for a large segment of society and contributes significantly to the national economy. In many African countries, labor-intensive farming accounts for more than one-third of the gross national product. By disrupting agricultural production, HIV/AIDS can undermine countries’ export capacity and thus their ability to earn foreign exchange.1

AIDS-related deaths among farm workers threaten agricultural production and food security, most notably in southern and eastern Africa. In 25 African countries with high rates of HIV prevalence, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 7 million agricultural workers have died of AIDS since 1985. FAO projects that 16 million more agricultural workers in these countries will die because of AIDS between 2000 and 2020.2 Population losses in the agricultural labor force between 1985 and 2020 in the worst-affected countries will range from 13 percent in Tanzania to 26 percent in Namibia (see figure).

Projected Loss of Agricultural Labor Force Because of HIV/AIDS, Selected African Countries, 1985-2020

Source: Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “AIDS — A Threat to Rural Africa: Fact Sheet” (www.fao.org/Focus/
E/aids/aids6-e.htm, accessed July 12, 2002).

In eastern Africa, AIDS-related labor shortages have led to lower crop yields, smaller amounts of land being cultivated, and a move from cash crops to subsistence crops.3 In Zimbabwe, the Farmers Union found that the loss of a breadwinner to AIDS decreased crop output by as much as 61 percent in small-scale farming areas.4

Agricultural households coping with HIV/AIDS may forgo seed purchases and sell assets such as livestock, equipment, or land to support ill family members and pay for funeral expenses. Time devoted to care, funerals, and mourning of family members with HIV/AIDS reduces productivity and jeopardizes households’ ability to produce and purchase food. Moreover, important knowledge and skills are lost as deaths mount among the agricultural population.


  1. Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), “HIV/AIDS, Food Security, and Rural Development: Fact Sheet” (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2001); and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Food Security,” accessed online at www.fao.org/
    docrep/meeting/003/y0310e.htm, on Feb. 2, 2002.
  2. FAO, “AIDS — A Threat to Rural Africa: Fact Sheet,” accessed online at www.fao.org/focus/e/aids/aids6-e.htm, on Jan. 22, 2002.
  3. FAO, “Food Insecurity and AIDS: A Vicious Circle,” accessed online at www.fao.org/focus/e/aids/aids2-e.htm, on Jan. 22, 2002.
  4. Jon Jeter, “AIDS Sickening African Economies,” Washington Post, Dec. 12, 1999.

Peter Lamptey is president of the Family Health International (FHI) Institute for HIV/AIDS. Merywen Wigley is an associate technical officer at the FHI Institute for HIV/AIDS. Dara Carr is a technical director for health communication at PRB. Yvette Collymore is senior editor at PRB.

Excerpted from PRB’s Population Bulletin, “Facing the HIV/AIDS Pandemic” (PDF: 786KB).