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
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
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
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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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.