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 agricultural
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
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. These
- Planting complementary sequences of legume crops (that put
nitrogen into the soil free from the atmosphere) and cereal crops.
- 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 markets.
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 and drought.
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