Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT

Sustainable food production and agriculture key to better nutrition and incomes in Africa

Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT

Photo: A Diama, ICRISAT

The conventional approaches of agriculture, with industrial systems of production, specialization in few commodities, mechanization and economies of scale, may not necessarily work for Africa due to its unique settings and contexts. Experts in African agriculture recently got together to re-examine this approach, considering the broader challenges of the environment, food security and socio-economics in Africa, in a webinar organized by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

The objective of the webinar was to share experiences on sustainable farming methods and approaches and debate on the African narrative that would satisfy the multiple objectives of small-scale farmers, namely productivity, profitability and resilience.

Dr Tilahun Amede, Head of Resilience, Climate and Soils, AGRA, highlighted the issues facing African agriculture in his inaugural presentation. “Against the background of food insecurity, a changing climate, dwindling natural resources and increasing social and economic inequalities, concerns for more healthy food systems and the ecosystem services that support them have been gaining momentum, particularly as more scientific evidence becomes available,” he said, asking for the participants to share ideas on context-specific solutions tailored for Africa.

How can we employ an African model of sustainable farming, recognizing the diversity of farming systems, agroecology, resources, food habits and other external drivers? 

Responding to this main question, Dr Ramadjita Tabo, Regional Director, West and Central Africa, ICRISAT, said, “We need external inputs at a moderate level (e.g., fertilizer micro-dosing with small doses of fertilizer, spraying legumes with organic insecticides, etc.). We also need to increase crop densities by intercropping leguminous crops such as groundnut, cowpea, soybean, pigeonpea etc. with cereal crops, thereby increasing atmospheric nitrogen fixation that can be beneficial to cereal crops. Crop rotations of cereals and legumes should be promoted to enhance soil fertility and reduce pest incidence.”

In addition, Dr Tabo emphasized the need to grow nutritious and water-efficient crops such as sorghum and millet, which have climate-smart varieties and hybrids high in iron and zinc. In his intervention, he recalled the first millet hybrids released in Burkina Faso in 2021 which recorded 40% more yield than the best high-yielding Open Pollinated Variety. He also advised on intensifying the integration of crop-livestock-tree systems, integrated water management, restoration and reclaiming of degraded lands, and increasing mechanization (for preparing land and soils, for planting, applying fertilizers, harvesting crops, etc.).

Another remarkable initiative mentioned by Dr Tabo is the African Market Garden – the concept of fast-growing trees grown with vegetable (tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, etc.) and legume crops. ICRISAT’s Regional Director also emphasized the use of new ICT/decision-support tools as well as Climate Information Services (CIS) for informed decision making by farmers to prevent crop losses. Access to market information on prices, adding value to agricultural products through processing through agri-business etc. were also mentioned by Dr Tabo.

He mentioned ICRISAT’s Smart Food campaign as a good approach to promote the use of sorghum and millet that have low carbon footprints and are high in iron, zinc, calcium and protein. “The year 2023 being declared the International Year of Millets by the United Nations will hopefully attract more funding to further improve productivity of millets,” he said.

How can we employ the models for sustainable farming without external drivers?

“We believe we have enough knowledge to increase productivity sustainably,” said Dr Aggie Konde, Vice President, Program Development & Innovation, AGRA.

“One system will not be practical in all agro-ecologies. We need to find the healthy middle,” said Dr Kwesi Atta-Krah, Director, Advocacy and Country Alignment, IITA.

“We need to become outcome-oriented regarding promotion of farming systems. We’ve been good in getting technologies to farmers but we need to try again a more farmer-centric approach and opportunities, moving back to soil health while intensifying the agriculture,” said Prof Sieglinde Snapp, Michigan State University.

“We need to be judicious in the use of external inputs to prevent soil degradation. Sustainable intensification is about producing more food in a more efficient and durable way while reducing environmental damage and building resilience. It is about preserving our natural ecosystem with a small environmental footprint. Therefore, we need options that are specific to the environment in which we are working,” said Dr Tabo, explaining the major aspects of intensification including ecological and genetic intensification.

Professor Ken Giller, Wageningen University, highlighted the uniqueness of the African green revolution. “We should be able to embrace all progressive technologies available to farmers. We need to differentiate between nutrients and pesticides which are designed to kill things. Soil fertility is a problem in most parts of Africa and we need inputs from fertilizers,” he said. He also emphasized the importance of policy interventions and investment in rural areas and infrastructure.

According to Professor Christogonus Daudu, Agricultural Extension Research and Liaison Services, Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria, the lack of advisory services has been a limiting factor to advancing farming in Africa. “At one time, Nigeria was part of the green revolution with the support of extension services. Now with the lack of funding, grassroots extension has collapsed. The best-bet resilient technologies are there but we need someone to help farmers take advantages of these options. We need stronger public-private extension services to address this and to integrate new means of communication about these technologies available to farmers,” said Professor Daudu.

“Many things are not negotiable for Africa-based farming systems,” said Dr Susan Chomba, Director, Vital Landscapes, World Resources Institute (WRI-Africa). “Prosperity is an aspect of resilience that the African farming system needs to embrace. We should be able to look for integrated management to impact livelihoods as well as look at the social aspect by integrating the youth. Look at infrastructure along with the extension system.”

“Integration is key but we need a balance between ‘protect’ and ‘provide’,” said Dr Michael Misiko, Anthropologist and Agriculture Director, Africa, at The Nature Conservancy. “Innovation is important but the key thing is how this can lead towards businesses models. We need to enable farmers to produce in a way that is climate-smart, equitable and favorable to entrepreneurship that is good for Africa.”

Prof Snapp said, “The rural-urban linkages can affect sustainability. There is a growing middle class looking to diversify their source of proteins. We could build the diversification using this urban-rural linkages.”

In his final comments, Professor Giller, who was the moderator of the panel, advised to get away from ideologies. “We see agriculture expanding into very fragile lands. There is a definitive need for intensification in Africa for national food security. We need to look for local solutions that are best for the environment, nutrition and diet.”

“Building on the success on the ground, strengthening mechanisms for regional sharing of successful innovations and approaches in different settings, is very important. As we go from diversification to flexible intensification, we need to build capacities at all levels,” said Dr John Dixon, Adjunct Professor, University of Queensland.

Dr Krah reiterated, “We have to recognize that in the case of a farmer in his farm, there is a whole range of things that can be practiced to face a particular situation. It is important to show how things are sustainable over the long term and go through intensification with consciousness.”

“The issue of sustainable intensification is also defined by on our own experience in the field. We cannot do without inputs. We have to go back to some of the forgotten crops and see how their use can help to combat the whole issue of hunger,” concluded Dr Tabo.

The speakers were part of the panel discussion ‘Can we produce enough food and income for the current and growing population of Africa without using critical external inputs?’ on 13 July 2021. This was part of the overall webinar ‘Sustainable Farming: Transforming Africa’s Landscapes and Livelihoods’, a side event to the United Nations Food Systems Summit.

Reported by Ms Agathe Diama, Head, Regional Information, ICRISAT-WCA.

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