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
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
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
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
- Identify, improve and expand the best traditional agricultural
- 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.
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.