Hey Bill and Melinda!
If you really want to make an impact in Africa, try this.

Enabling families to develop sustainable, locally adapted farming systems will be the real success.

By Amadou Makhtar Diop
Posted October 12, 2006

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 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. These include:

  • 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 Africa. Now.