It’s a good thing
there is fresh interest in the role of agriculture as an engine
for economic growth and community development in Africa.
It’s also a good thing that the Gates and Rockefeller
foundations have decided to jointly commit $150 million for
development in Sub-Saharan Africa. The focus is good:
developing 100 new varieties of locally adapted crops in the
next five years and delivering them to small farmers. I just
wish they would put some of their golden eggs into broader
farmer-centered sustainable agriculture systems that are proving
successful—with way too little fanfare—at many
points in the continent.
What’s not working now in Africa? Many farmers attribute
decreased farming success to compacted soils, poor crop prices,
declining soil fertility, delays in receiving inputs, harvest
losses from heavy rains and other management problems—all
in addition to poor-quality seeds.
Land degradation, overgrazing, deforestation, lack of organic
matter amendments and insufficient rainfall are main factors
for desert-like encroachment into more areas of Sub-Saharan
Africa. Desertification and drought threaten the health and
livelihoods of more than 1 billion people, causing an estimated
$42 billion in lost agricultural production annually.
Even though the new seeds from the Gates/Rockefeller initiative
may boost yields where there is sufficient fertility and moisture,
alternative approaches could achieve similar results while
better protecting the environment and building soil productivity.
- Planting complementary sequences of legume crops (that
put nitrogen into the soil free from the atmosphere) and
- Encouraging carefully managed livestock, an integral part
of the traditional agricultural that can be an excellent
source of income and nutritious food.
- Applying on-farm animal manure or compost for natural
soil fertility and regeneration.
- Building appropriate infrastructure for secure grain
storage, decentralized processing facilities and transportation
to empower more farmers to participate in regional and national
Bill and Melinda are smart, reasonable people. I wish some
of their welcome investment in African agriculture would go
to improving ecologically productive cropping systems, synergistic
integration of livestock and crop production, and building
rural infrastructure to connect family and commercial farms
with local and regional markets.
I’ve been involved with agricultural development in
Senegal—my home country—and West Africa for many
years. The national rural infrastructure program the World
Bank tried to implement in Senegal hasn’t paid off,
from what I can see.
Most farmers in sub-Saharan Africa prefer the more resilient
farming styles that build on traditional practices but are
enhanced by innovations that work where they are. These hybrid
systems—using the latest ag research combined with proven
practices and available materials—can improve soil quality,
increase soil biodiversity and enhance resistance to erosion
To actually achieve poverty reduction and sustainable development,
we have to apply global and local knowledge. We have to work
with the best farmers to turn scientific findings into operational
work. There are many successes throughout Africa in these
sustainable, biologically integrated models, but the stories
aren’t well known. By training and supporting the too-few
trainers who work directly with farmers, these low-cost, long-term
approaches can make an impact.
Build the soil. Feed the village. Sell the surplus. Cooperate
with nature’s potential. Investments in these steps
will build enduring hope and economic prosperity that is so
badly needed in Africa. Now.