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February 12, 2012

For many Ethiopian farmers, sustainable farming more realistic, accessible than external inputs-based farming

Laura Rance, editor of the Manitoba Co-operator, Canada, recently went to Ethiopia on a media food study tour with the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. She found that many of the farming methods that are taken for granted in Canada, and advocated in Africa by some, are simply not within the realm of possibility for many Ethiopian farmers.

For some poor farmers, lack of access to hybrid seed, fertilizer and mechanization means poverty and hunger. But training in various sustainable farming methods can make a big difference in the livelihoods of farmers, giving them independence over their operations, improved food security and chances for surpluses to sell.

Many African countries have over the decades embarked on various ambitious agricultural ‘modernization’ programmes involving hybrid seed, fertilizer and agrochemicals and modern farm equipment. Usually funded by external donors or with expensive foreign debts, few countries are able to sustain them.

“A row of derelict tractors on an abandoned state farm is a fitting reminder that industrialized agriculture has a checkered future in this populous East African country,” begins Rance. “With their faded red paint, gutted engines and rotting tires gradually being swallowed by the prickly underbrush, these 1970s-vintage symbols of progressive agriculture represent a technology that has little application for the majority of Ethiopian farmers who use oxen and hoe on plots of two hectares or less.”

Despite modernization projects that are conceived and much-hyped every few years, Rance is on target to say that “it is highly unlikely that high input agriculture will do much – at least not directly - to improve the economic welfare of the small holder farmers or for the 10 to 20 per cent of the population that is chronically food insecure.”

This is as true in most of Africa as is it is in Ethiopia. The reasons for these failures have been mentioned exhaustively, and do not need repeating here in any great detail.

Once a big loan or grant has brought tractors or combine harvesters in, who will maintain them? Are there qualified mechanics to do so? If so, are they available out in the rural areas where the tractors are, or hundreds of kilometers away in the capital city? Are the spare parts available? Are they affordable? The tractor carcasses Rance mentions are probably the remnant of some previous ‘modernization’ effort where such basic questions were not asked.

Rance mentions some of the other impediments to well-intentioned but poorly, unrealistically conceived and implemented modern farming efforts all over Africa.

Tractors don’t much help farmers who can’t afford fuel, maintenance, repairs. Rain-dependent farming places severe limitations, as does limited, insecure land access.

The advice to farmers to use hybrid seed and fertilizer has often been accompanied by drought. In particularly stressed environments (low rain, high heat, depleted soil, etc) the results are particularly disastrous; perhaps even worse than if the farmers had relied on their own adapted seed and on improving intrinsic soil fertility.

“Many producers have come to associate commercial fertilizer with their parched, eroded soil’s declining fertility,” writes Rance.

To cope with their environmentally and climate-stressed environments, farmers are being encouraged to take up well-known sustainable farming methods which many farmers have over the years lost knowledge of, with encouraging results: no till, mulching, use of manure. Previously desperate farmers have seen their maize yields as much as double from these simple but effective techniques.

Many agricultural modernists are scornful of these humble methods. But they are unable to come up with a sustainable modernization model that addresses the many inter-linked causes of the failure of many such previous efforts.

The obstacles to the success of ‘modern farming’ in many African settings has been/is basic questions like: After you donate the tractor, how is it kept running? When you provide subsidized seed and fertilizer, how much good will they do where farmers depend on declining rain for their production?

Humble, accessible sustainable farming methods will for many African farmers continue to be a much more realistic option for avoiding starvation than theoretically good interventions that are for them merely pie in the sky.

African Agriculture

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