Yes, Africa can feed itself—through a
sustainable agriculture revolution

Building soil—not importing more inputs—will be the best way for this bio-diverse continent to improve its food security.

By Amadou Makhtar Diop


Photos by Greg Bowman

Posted August 9, 2007: The Norwegian government recently took the initiative to convene African experts to discuss the status of African agriculture and to address how the continent’s farmers could contribute to its food sovereignty and security. In my participation in this Oslo conference, I highlighted the principles that grew out of my experience with farmers throughout Senegal and elsewhere in Africa.

Over many thousands of years, Africans have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about their environment. For instance, they have used plants to treat wounds and disease, as well as for food.

The livelihood of the majority of people in the poorer areas of rural Africa is being threatened by the rapid depletion on natural resources. In the post-colonial era, many African nations have continued to export commodities, preventing the development of indigenous value-added enterprises that would encourage more specialized and profitable agricultural products.

Sustainable agriculture can be complementary to rural people’s livelihoods. It can deliver increases in food production at relatively low cost, plus contribute to other important functions.

Organic agriculture is considered a sustainable option in developing countries because it offers a unique combination of low external-input technology, environmental conservation and input/output efficiency. In Africa, isolated organic farming techniques are often practiced. There is a general lack of an integrated approach to soil regeneration and crop protection which would otherwise optimize the benefits of locally available natural resources.

Lessons learned from the old Green Revolution

The old Green Revolution, despite producing varieties that can increase production with sufficient inputs, is not sufficiently solving global food and hunger problems. The Green Revolution boosted yields in Asia’s rice-based systems through hybrid varieties and applied crop-protection materials, while Africa has more diverse systems to address.

Does Africa need another yield-focused, high-external input Green Revolution? For many participants at the meeting in Norway, the answer was “No!” Africa has demonstrated that it has the potential both to feed its people and to export. For example, cassava production has quadrupled during the past 10 years, making Africa the largest producer of this crop. With favorable climatic conditions, African countries have also recorded bumper harvests of millet and sorghum.

Africa needs a systematic approach to ecosystem management and food production. In the past decade, African farmers have made significant achievements in developing alternatives to conventional agriculture methods. At the Oslo conference, the majority of participants believed that in Africa, a large and diverse continent, each country has unique problems requiring specifically crafted interventions.

What Africa needs is a sustainable agriculture revolution that focuses on food security, fair trade with local markets and ecological standards that make sense to farmers. Successful integration of plants and animals can result in positive interactions and optimize biological processes, such as the regulation of harmful organisms, recycling of nutrients, biomass production and the build-up of soil organic matter.

Environmental protection and good natural resource management are keys to sustainability. All the potential that exists in Africa has not been used. In addition to its significant landmass, Africa is well positioned geographically between the 40th parallels and is divided by the equator into two almost identical parts in terms of land and plant diversity, making it possible for African farmers to grow all the world crops.

Restoring soil fertility

Declining soil fertility is the greatest problem affecting African farmers' ability to produce enough food for their families. Farmers of the developing world tend to prefer more resilient systems that build on traditional management techniques over costly high-tech production systems.

Soil regeneration is key to sustainable development, where the loss of soil organic matter contributes to a rapid decline of soil fertility, degradation of soil structure and increased risk of erosion. In developing countries, food production could be doubled or tripled through the use of organic methods by intensifying biological activity through increasing diversification.

The role of women is crucial in agricultural production and for improved livelihood. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, 31 percent of rural households are headed by women, despite the fact that women have less access to land than men. When women own land, their holdings tend to be smaller and located in more marginal areas. In most of the countries surveyed by the FAO, there has been some growth in the number of non-governmental organizations and women's associations involving or working with rural women.

National efforts to grow enough food for all citizens should integrate nutrition interventions into broader development initiatives. Countries must also invest in their people (women in particular) by supporting employment training, education and health care, and by creating institutions and policies that make ending hunger and poverty an explicit and measurable goal.

Scale, scope and sector

What is needed are community-based systems of cooperative family farms, organized to market for regional distribution and re-integrating livestock wherever feasible. In order for agriculture to provide environmental services, it requires a major shift of emphasis from a short-term, production-oriented strategy to a long-term rehabilitative approach. Farmers will need to invest in soil resources as a first priority so they can then reap the long-term benefits of increased crop yields and sustained production in a much healthier environment.

The Rodale Institute has developed a soil regeneration model that helped reverse the trend of soil and natural-resources degradation in Senegal’s peanut basin. Integrated crop-livestock systems reduce overall risk, contribute to the sustainability of smallholder farmers, improve local diets through the addition of protein, increase income opportunities and enhance the restoration of soil organic matter.

The agro-ecological contribution

The old Green Revolution is still cited as a miracle in India where people continue to fight hunger. Africa needs a systemic approach to both restore its ecosystems and to produce enough food sustainably for its people.

Yes, Africa can feed itself and at the same time preserve its natural resources and the environment. To make this happen, the following steps must take place:

  • Establish national strategies and sustainable agriculture programs.
  • Adopt farming systems with a focus on preserving biodiversity, natural resource management and soil fertility improvement based on sound ecological principles.
  • Intensify crop and animal production without the use of industrially produced chemical fertilizers.
  • Offer farmer-centered technical training in sustainable farming techniques.
  • Identify, improve and expand the best traditional agricultural practices.
  • Optimize irrigation and management of water resources.
  • Support women in agriculture.
  • Protect African nations from foreign dumping of food commodities and cheap food imports that destabilize regional farm communities.
  • Create access to practical information, land, infrastructure, credit and markets.
  • Use participatory approaches to technological development.

Farmer-centered in Burkina Faso

You can read about a powerful example of farmer-centered sustainable agricultural development in Burkina Faso next month at NewFarm.org.

Ag researcher Timothy Krupnik will tell the story of how farmer-to-farmer training sessions in the field and on farms can transfer intimate local knowledge of insect ecology that manages pest while greatly reducing pesticide use—and dependence on outside top-down technology transfer—to ground success in regionally adapted ways.