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April 27, 2007

Innovations for getting Africa to feed itself

by Monty Jones

There should be no doubt that Africa can feed itself; after all it has half the population of India which is food self sufficient on one twelfth of the land area. Why is Africa not food self-sufficient despite its abundant resources? The question is simple but the answer is complex.

African agriculture is far behind in comparison to other developing regions : only 7 percent of the arable land is irrigated against 40 percent in Asia; only 22 Kg of fertilizer is applied per hectare of arable land in Africa (10 kg/ha in sub-Saharan Africa), i.e. only 15 percent (and 7 percent) of the 144 Kg/ha in Asia; and the number of tractors per 1,000 ha of arable land is 3 times greater in Asia and 8 times greater in Latin America than Africa. The road density is more than 2.5 times higher in Latin America and 6 times higher in Asia than in Africa. The blood-red rivers carrying millions of tons of precious soil into the sea are clear indicators of wide-spread degradation of natural resources. Finally, institutions of agricultural higher education, research and extension are poorly staffed, under equipped and funded.

Perhaps the most pernicious of the many causes of the poor state of African agriculture are the misconceptions about the roles and abilities of African smallholders. To many observers, they are subsistence farmers who are not interested in producing surpluses for markets. For too long, they have been regarded as intransigent beneficiaries at the end of the top-down research-extension-adoption pipelines. With the vast majority of African producers and custodians of most of Africa's land regarded in this light, it is not surprising that there has been little progress in agricultural intensification.

There is increasing awareness of farmer innovation such as the dramatic spread of Zai pits in Niger and Burkina Faso that have raised staple crop yields on very badly degraded lands, increased tree cover and led to rising water levels in wells that had been falling. There is also more understanding of the high level of ingenuity that it takes to support families from minute parcels of land. The apparent attachment to subsistence farming is wholly rational given the difference between low farm-gate prices and high cost of purchased food.

The linear approach to research and development is being abandoned in favour of a holistic innovation systems approach that looks at the whole system and involves all the actors. This is in contrast to the approach where researchers would look at different aspects of agricultural systems separately. That meant that the value of success in one part (say in developing a high yielding variety) could be lost by failure in another part of the system (say by lack of market for the increased production).

Researchers are now taking a holistic view and instead of carrying out fertilizer trials where farmers have no access to fertilizer; they are first addressing the problems stopping the rural traders from stocking it. Those problems may arise from lack of credit, bad roads and government fertiliser import policies among others.

An integrated approach to agricultural research that involves all the actors in agricultural value chains, from producers to consumers, is being developed and validated in the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) coordinated by Sub Saharan Africa Challenge Programme in three pilot learning sites involving 8 countries in East, West and Southern Africa.

To ensure that participatory approaches focused on empowering the farmers are internalised in African agricultural research, FARA led the development of the Framework for African Agricultural Productivity (FAAP) which sets out guiding principles and indicates "best practice," the methods and approaches that work best. They include empowering the farmers, being participatory and working in concert with other actors.

So that they will have access to the information and lifelong learning that are essential for innovation, FARA is advancing a Regional Agricultural Information and Learning Systems (RAILS). FARA is also coordinating a programme for Strengthening Capacity for Agricultural Research and Development in Africa (SCARDA) which includes strengthening of Africa's agricultural universities.

*Dr.Monty Jones is Executive Secretary, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA)

The African Executive

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