Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sustainable Intensification 'Can Work for African Farmers'

Smallholder farmers in Africa must participate in research to ensure higher crop yields and to fend off hunger as the continent's population grows, according to a report published on 18 April.

A combination of
traditional knowledge and modern science will be key to achieving higher productivity at lower ecological cost — known as 'sustainable intensification' — the report says.

'Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture' was written by the Montpellier Panel, a group of international experts from the fields of
agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy and global development.


  • A conjunction of traditional knowledge and modern science is key to African food security
  • 'Sustainable intensification' of farming is not just for big agriculture, it can work for smallholders, too
  • Innovation and technology diffusion are essential for ensuring food security in Africa
The group first met in Montpellier, France, in March 2010, with the aim of helping European policymakers make better decisions in support of food security and agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The new report is a reaction to the growing politicisation of the term 'sustainable intensification', which some now see to be promoting the interests of big, industrial agriculture. Taking a different view, the report claims the sustainable intensification approach can help smallholder farmers grow more crops and protect the

In Sub-Saharan Africa food demand is growing rapidly, while supply is still insufficient. It is estimated that by 2050 the African food production system will be able to meet no more than 13 per cent of the population's needs.

A possible approach to tackling the problem is to reduce food waste by improving supply chains and facilitating access to healthy food. However, the Montpellier Panel maintains that for 80 per cent of the chronically hungry African smallholders, low productivity remains a major issue.

Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and a Montpellier Panel member, believes that a bottom-up approach is "absolutely essential" for sustainable intensification.

"We need to get farmers involved in the process, testing out new crop varieties and new ways to use soil and water," she tells SciDev.Net.

Toulmin adds that, to engage the farmers, "there's no need for a formal meeting platform — you just need to encourage a different way of working".

Along with the other members of the Montpellier Panel, she believes that to improve communication between international researchers and local smallholders, the best solution is to visit affected communities, spend time in villages and fields, and to listen and learn.

"Scientific knowledge can be obtained anywhere — globally or locally," says Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chief executive of the South African Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and fellow panel member. "But any science must be adapted to local conditions, and policies must be put in place to support implementation."

Majele Sibanda cites the water pockets technique known as zai, pioneered by farmers in Burkina Faso, as an example of a traditional practice recognised by modern science
. Farmers dig holes — or zais — across the fields during the dry season, and fill them with manure to attract termites. The termites then create an extensive network of underground tunnels beneath the holes and bring up nutrients from the deeper soils.

Rainwater is captured in the zais, and
water loss through drainage is limited by the manure. Thus even in drought-prone environments, sufficient water capture to sustain crop yields is ensured.

In the northeast of Burkina Faso, where the zai technique has been practised since the early 1980s, grain yield has increased by 120 per cent, equating to around 80,000 tonnes of extra grain per year.

"The labour in the first year is high, but farmers may reuse the holes or dig more between the existing ones," says Majele Sibanda.
Unai Pascual, a senior lecturer in land economy at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a professor at the Basque Foundation for Science in Bilbao, Spain, who was not involved in the study, agrees with the panel's calls for the greater involvement of African farmers in research processes.

"Any intervention has to be legitimised by the people it is going to affect or it won't last in the long term," Pascual tells SciDev.Net. He believes that farmers should join scientists in designing new measures, because they are familiar with the complexities of local systems.

"What I would have liked to see in the report is more attention to the time frame of any intervention," he says.

"Interventions need to be carefully balanced," because the relationship between agriculture and local environments is dynamic and changes over time, he explains. "Some funding approaches can work in the short period, but afterwards socio-ecological conditions will change as a consequence."

The report also recommends a range of actions aimed at
governments in developed countries and Africa, to act upon sustainable intensification, in partnerships with the private sector, civil society organisations and NGOs.

These include providing support for research and innovation to help identify suitable technologies and processes; the scaling up and out of such technologies and processes; providing financial investments and markets that support sustainable intensification; and making required inputs and credits accessible to smallholder farmers in Africa.

While there are some interesting developments, it seems as if earlier work by various organisations including IITA, ILCA [ or alternate names for the essentially same organisation] seem to have been omitted from much of the report.

Is it a case of ignorance, or person turnover, so that they need to reinvent the wheel, again and again?

The full report [ a slim volume of 36pp] is a decent read.  But words are getting a bit passe........it is well past the time for some action. 

The link is here -

[ photo of zai farming systems as used in Burkina Faso to improve crop production; more here -
http://www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/iknt80.htm ]

Yes, some parts of Africa have made enormous strides in agricultural productivity, crop yields and "smart" and innovative production systems, but many others have not.  Climate variability does not help - with serious uncertainities unresolved about commencement of the rainy season.
African agriculture has been a laggard generally, in comparison to some other tropical regions, in terms of productivity, yet there are areas of great improvement - and across quite a range of crops.  Getting that translated into a wider area is critical, particularly in light of climate variability and uncertainity.

In northern tropical Australia, some better understanding of the monsoonal rain patterns is helping - not just for agriculture either but industry as well, including the oil and gas industries.

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