Picture 137Future Agricultures Consortium recognises the importance of debates in shaping the future of livelihoods in Africa. In order to raise the profile of important topics surrounding agriculture, the Consortium and its’ partners are increasingly promoting these electronic discussions.

Read FAC’s recent e-debates on:

Latest articles

Roland Bunch
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

The problem has been, for decades, that the world’s top scientists have not concentrated on the most important problems of small-scale farmers. If someone is dying of thirst, and you give him fried chicken, you are not going to save him, even if he does also happen to be malnourished. You have to respond to people’s most important needs–their limiting factors.

By far the largest problem worldwide with respect to the lack of appropriate agricultural technologies is that the CGIAR system, dominated by plant geneticists, has already decided what small farmers need, without being willing to look at all the indications that their priorities are dead wrong. The limiting factors of the vast majority of smallholder farmers in Africa are NOT genetic. The limiting factors for African smallholders are soil fertility, and more specifically soil nitrogen (and to a lesser extent, phosphorus), and water. But inorganic fertilizer is now priced way beyond smallholders’ reach. This fact is recognized by knowledgeable agronomists, and that is why they talk so much about subsidizing inorganic fertilizers. But subsidized fertilizers will only prolong the agony; they will artificially make green manure/cover crops and soil-enriching agroforestry less attractive, thereby putting off the moment when farmers will switch to the only technologies that can truly and sustainably solve the problem of African soil fertility.

Micro-scale water management is the second very important answer to Africa’s low productivity, and the CGIAR system has done even less along these lines. I know some small NGOs (with budgets in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) in Central America that have developed more small-scale water management technologies than has the entire CGIAR system.

If you are genuinely interested in the well-being of small-scale farmers, you will look into EPAGRI’s work with green manures in Santa Catarina State, Brazil, COSECHA’s work with small-scale water management in southern Honduras, FAO’s previous work in Lempira Dept., Honduras, green manure/cover crop work in Zambia, small farmers’ innovations near Bamenda, Cameroon, and even ICRAF’s work in Kenya and Malawi. The answers–the technologies Africa’s farmers really need–are already out there in the field. I would be happy, together with people like Jules Pretty and Pedro Sanchez, to develop an itinerary for you to go and study these technologies and their rapid adoption by smallholder farmers.

Joost Brouwer
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

To make science and technology work for small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa I think it is imperative that account be taken of within-field soil variability.  This is especially true in semi-arid areas, but also in other parts of Africa.

The farmers themselves take variability into account: they often manage different parts of a field in a different manner.  They do this because it is more efficient, and because it reduces production risks. Technology developments and technology transfers that do not connect with this site-specific management by farmers, and with the underlying reasons, risk being ignored or turned down.  Farmer, extension and scientific knowledge about short-distance soil and crop growth variability must be combined for

– improved knowledge, understanding and communication by and for all parties concerned

– better design and analysis of agronomic experiments

– more relevant extension approaches

– better management options for the farmers.It is not difficult to achieve this.

It just needs a change in attitude from seeing variability as a problem to seeing it as an asset and an opportunity for subsistence farmers.  

One simple step is to use an easily assessed environmental parameter as a co-variable in the analysis of agronomic experiments.  A well-chosen parameter will explain a signifcant part of the spatial (and temporal) variability in experimental results.  That same parameter can then be used to extend the experimental results to farmers.  Simple parameters that a farmer can also use include microtopography (high spots and low spots in a field); degree of crusting of the soil; distance from certain termite mounds or from certain trees; wet parts an dry parts of a field; and the presence and absence of certain weeds.

A 12-page brochure on a variability project at ICRISAT Sahelian Center in Niger, that aimed to do just this, was financed by IUCN’s Commission on Ecosystem Management and is available from http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/cem_csd_16_brochure_sahel_hq.pdf (2.6 Mb).  Its pictures tell the story and a number of references are included.  Its main conclusions are given below.  I will be happy to discuss this further with whomever may be interested.

The following practical results from the variability research in Niger can already be extended to farmers and/or researchers:·

  • with-in field variability can play a yield stabilising role; this is especially important in times of uncertainty caused by climate change·
  • over-manuring by many farmers in the Sahel can be reduced by spreading the available manure over a three times larger area;
  • different aeolian sand deposits, often found side by side in a single field, should be managed differently;·
  • nutrient use efficiency by farmers can be increased through microtopography-related site-specific management, such as not applying cattle manure and urine in wet and/or crusted areas;         this is important for the management of local fertility resources (manure, urine, compost, crop residues, domestic refuse), as well as for the management of mineral fertilisers: what can happen to cattle manure can happen to N, K and sometimes also P fertilisers;·
  • with-in field rainfall infiltration may be increased by applying lime or gypsum, especially on older aeolian deposits that crust more easily;
  • Macrotermes termites play an important role in local increases in soil fertility on sandy soils;
  • Faidherbia albida seedlings in agro-forestry projects are much more likely to grow well, and survive to adulthood and full utility, if they are planted near an old Macrotermes mound.
  • short-distance soil- and crop growth variability can be better incorporated into agricultural research through the use of covariables and other statistical techniques.

Shellemiah O. Keya
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

Suitable technologies should be developed in a participatory approach with farmers playing a major role. Small scale farmers need technologies that are site specific and tested at the village/community level since there are many farming systems dictated by varying agro ecosystems. In order to ensure that integrated crop management technologies are appropriate for small scale farmers, the emphasis should be on facilitating learning about suitable science and technologies.

This will empower farmers with new ideas that will allow them to experiment and see what works best within a given context and available resources. The underpinning characteristics of the science and technologies should be their sensitivity to resource limitation and capacity to withstand biotic and abiotic stresses. For example water saving technologies is desirable to overcome water deficit under many growing conditions. The technologies developed should aim at mitigating climate change at the same time user friendly to women who are the majority of agricultural producers. It is also important that the technologies can be disseminated by appropriate means and in consideration with the farmer’s level of education, language and easily accessible dissemination tools.

Francis Shaxson
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

Sustainability: many factors contribute to sustainability of agriculture: the most important of all is the capacity of soil-inhabiting organisms to thrive, because their activities are vital (literally) to formation and recurrent re-formation of soil structure, maintaining soil porosity.   Its condition affects

  • Proportion of rainfall lost as surface runoff;  thus also soil erosion;
  • Volume of plant-available water in the rooting zone;  thus also with implications for resistance to effects of climatic drought;
  • Volume of water percolating down to the water-table, with implications for irrigation possibilities.

Organic matter: Organic matter is not merely a source of plant nutrients (albeit at low concentrations). It is also the substrate for soil organisms’ activity, so a regular supply is needed, as the organisms’ metabolism results in its transformation.  Tillage is a potent cause of oxidation of organic matter – to atmospheric CO2 – having caused soil organic matter to be lost from soil faster than it is returned from conventional cropping systems, with negative effects on soils’ cation exchange capacities and thus on capture and slow release of plant nutrients from applied fertilizers. 
Tillage can thus have two negative effects:

  • Physical damage to soil structure;
  • Provoking excess oxidation of organic matter.

Floods, water shortage (for plants, for rivers), sub-optimal plant growth, soil erosion are inter-related to sub-optimal conditions of soil porosity, associated with tillage.   Optimum conditions of soil porosity  can only be restored through the biotic activities of soil-inhabiting organisms.

There seems to be a widespread assumption that tillage agriculture is the only way to produce crops, onto which ‘soil management’, ‘erosion control’, ‘water management’ are seen as ‘add-ons’ rather than integral parts of the land-management system(s)..

‘Conservation agriculture’:
is mentioned briefly, apparently as an option, in the paper summarizing the Salzburg Seminar. Its three interlocking component features are:

  • Minimal disturbance of soil once brought to good condition;
  • Maintenance of a permanent cover of organic materials (e.g. crop residues) on the soil surface;
  • Crop rotations/sequences including legumes.

The interactions of the physical, chemical, biologic and hydric components of soil productivity are key to Conservation Agriculture’s success when functioning in good conditions of climate and management.   These aspects of optimum CA, and its outcomes, deserve close study.   These are features which any/all production systems should have in common, though their expression will vary from one situation to another (environmental and/or human). All too commonly their optimum combined expression has been damaged, obscured or unbalanced by inadequate land management in the past. CA, when optimised for a particular situation, is a means of achieving and maintaining the integration of crop (and even pasture and/or silvicultural) production with effective water management, erosion minimisation/avoidance, drought-effect minimisation, biodiversity in the soil, carbon retention in the soil, improvement of  people’s livelihoods, and consequent wider benefits to both society  and to the environment.    

If the soil is kept in good condition (physical characteristics = ‘soil quality’;  biological characteristics = ‘soil health’), all other attempts to improve the lot of farm-families have a better chance of lasting success than if the soil itself continues to degrade.   

In a given situation, we need to be able to characterise the condition of the soil as it is, the condition of the soil as we would like it to be, how to get from the first condition to the second, and how to maintain the latter when we have got there.

The follow-through of these ideas indicate significant implications for research, advisory work, policy, education and training at all levels, and the ways in which AGRA can have fullest effects.

Ralph von Kaufmann
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

I agree with the following statement “To empower smallholder farmers to participate in an African Green Revolution, improvements should be made in both: functioning and performance of agricultural input markets so that viable smallholders can access inputs at cost effective prices; and empowering vulnerable smallholders with purchasing power so that they can participate in the market process”. Balu Bumb, Program Leader, Policy, Trade, and Markets Program at the International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC)

The so-called subsistence farmer is forced to produce for her family’s subsistence by the huge difference between the low farm-gate prices for what she produces and the high market prices for the same products.  This differential means that she has a comparative advantage in producing all her family needs herself rather than producing some things for sale and relying on the market for things she is not technically best placed to produce.  Only the better off can afford to be irrational in what they choose to produce. The subsistence farmer is operating at the edge so every production and marketing decision has a serious impact on their welfare and improving market efficiency has a major influence on their production options and technologies.
Therefore improving the functioning and performance of agricultural input markets will only be a partial solution. Markets must be improved for inputs, outputs and capital to level the playing field for smallholders and enable them to raise their incomes.  I am deliberately not including the market for land because I am yet to be convinced that there is an effective way of protecting smallholders from speculative buyers which is neither in their long-term interest nor are the buyers likely to be more productive farmers.

Michael Mortimore,
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

It appears presumptuous to try to add to the value of the comprehensive discussions at the Salzburg Global Seminar, and the wide-ranging report of its deliberations and recommendations (‘Towards an African Green Revolution’).
In looking for an African paradigm the Seminar did not resolve the fundamental question of relating demand with supply factors in driving ‘agriculture-led growth’. This issue seems to me to be also unresolved in debates about the Asian Green Revolution. In India, was it in essence a technological revolution, solving supply constraints, as popularly represented, or a transformation of the economic system led by growth in demand? Rapid population growth and massive urbanization (including successful industrialization via an Indian, labour-intensive model) were essential components. Can we imagine an Indian green revolution without these?

The slow growth of productivity in African agriculture is nearly always blamed on supply constraints. There is alleged to be a ‘crisis’ in African agriculture summarised by an ‘inability’ to produce enough food and an increasing dependency on imports. In the most extreme case (Zimbabwe) it is obvious that policy not supply constraints is to blame. Has it occurred to anyone that the close correspondence between food commodity production growth and demographic growth over the last 45 years could be explained by poverty (lack of purchasing power and consequently low prices)? Slack world prices for African exports have meanwhile undermined the export-led model promoted by the World Bank.
Incentives are critical determinants of the uptake of new technology, but often neglected. Certainly, markets can be made more efficient, and more accessible. Credit can overcome capital constraints. But a hard look at the structure of agricultural producer incentives in every African country is surely needed urgently.
Since 1960 most countries have at least doubled their population and at the same time urbanised to an extent that should not be ignored by agricultural planners. The leading example is Nigeria. In the last decade, a critical threshold was passed (50% urbanization). Now, less than half the population have the responsibility for feeding more than half of it. While this transition was taking place, there is evidence of dynamism in the agricultural sector (increased production of yams and cassava per capita, decline in per capita food imports, growth in output of niche commodities while there was a long-term consistency (though fluctuating annually) in output of cereal grains and pulses per capita,), during the period since the adoption of a new policy framework in the 1980s. Other countries may follow a similar course, if they are not already doing so, by virtue of demographic realities.
Agricultural revolution takes place in a multi-sectoral economic context. Most of the Salzburg Seminar discussions appear to have concerned themselves with sectoral policies and actions. An implied assumption appears to be that markets can be taken as ‘given’ and are infinite; therefore, supply constraints must be the problem.
The limitation of African urbanization as a driving force for agricultural revolution – through a radical transformation of rural-urban relations – is the failure of classical industrialization strategies to provide new employment and incomes on a sufficient scale. Poverty levels in many cities are only slightly lower than in some rural areas. Poverty reduction strategies are therefore a necessary ingredient of agriculture-led growth.
This suggests that the necessary conditions for agricultural revolution may lie outside the agricultural sector. This seems to have happened in England in the eighteenth century as well as in India in the twentieth. Precolonial African models are also available. For example, the intensification of small-scale farming in the Kano Close-Settled Zone of Nigeria during the nineteenth century was driven by demand growth for a range of commodities in its metropolitan market.
Although the Salzburg report rightly identifies participatory and accountability dimensions of policy as critical, these priorities seem to me to represent pathways rather than goals. In debates on African green revolution the function of consumer demand is frequently left out of the picture. Is this because everybody knows that India achieved its revolution through protecting its farmers (and its industry) from global competition, whereas (by a silent consensus) Africa must struggle to find its way under Doha conditions? The construction of an African paradigm needs to come to grips with these externalities and realities of macro-economic policy.

Patti Kristjanson
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

Science and Technology will only work for small-scale farmers if agricultural research is carried out differently than much of it has been in the past. Lessons from research that has successfully linked knowledge with action – changes in policies, practices, institutions and technologies – contributing to sustainable poverty reduction suggest the following principles are key:

Problem Definition.
Projects are more likely to succeed in linking knowledge with action when they use processes and tools that enhance efficient dialogue and cooperation between those who have or produce knowledge and decision-makers who use it, with project members defining the problem they aim to solve in collaborative, user-driven ways.

Program Management. Research is more likely to inform action if it adopts a “project” orientation and organization, with dynamic leaders accountable for meeting use-driven goals and targets and the team managing to avoid letting “study of the problem” displace “creation of solutions” as its research goal.

Boundary Spanning. Initiatives are more likely to link knowledge with action when they include “boundary organizations” or “boundary-spanning actions” that help bridge gaps between research and user communities. This boundary-spanning work often involves constructing informal new arenas, in which project managers can foster user-producer dialogues, joint product definition, and a systems approach free from dominance by groups committed to the status quo. Defining joint ‘rules of engagement’ in the new arena that encourage mutual respect, co-creation and innovation that addresses complex problems improves the prospects for success.

Systems integration. Projects are more likely to be successful in linking knowledge with action when they take a systems approach that recognizes scientific research is just one ‘piece of the puzzle.’ Such systems-oriented strategies aim to identify and engage with key partners who can help turn co-created knowledge generated by the project into action (new strategies, policies, interventions, technologies) leading to better and more sustainable livelihoods.

Learning orientation. Research projects are more likely to be successful in linking knowledge with action when they are designed as much for learning as they are for knowing. Such projects are frankly experimental, expecting and embracing failures so as to learn from them throughout the project’s life. Such orientations towards learning cannot thrive without appropriate reward systems for risk-taking managers, funding mechanisms that enable such risk-taking, and periodic external evaluation.

Continuity with flexibility. Getting research into use generally requires strategies aimed at strengthening linkages and effective patterns of interaction between organizations and individuals operating locally where impact is sought. A key role of boundary spanning work/organizations is the facilitation of processes that create strong networks and build innovation/response capacity of the system. Co-created communication strategies and boundary objects/products are key to the longevity and sustainability of project outcomes and impacts.

Manage asymmetries of power. Efforts linking knowledge with action are more likely to be successful when they come up with empowerment strategies aimed at ‘leveling the playing field’ in order to generate hybrid, co-created knowledge and deal with the often large (and largely hidden) asymmetries of power felt by stakeholders.

Toyin Kolawole
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

The current discussion on ‘Making science and technology work for small-scale farmers’ is closely linked with the earlier debate on the appropriateness of farmers’ voices in the African Green Revolution [AGR] initiative. Essentially, the thinking of agricultural scientists and technologists will be more effectively put to use if they align with those of the smallholder farmer. As I had earlier indicated, there is the need to revisit and strengthen Research-Extension-Farmer linkage if the dream of realising a sustainable AGR is to be achieved. There are a lot of lessons to learn [either way] in the process of a 2-way information sharing within the linkage system.

Technologies that are patterned in line with the taste and capability [in terms of finance and usability] of small farmers will undoubtedly work for the purpose for which they are designed. Sincere and thorough farmer consultations by the researcher/technologist will, therefore, be needed in the design and development of any technologies aimed at bringing about an agrarian change amidst the small-holders. Aside some field experience acquired over the years, Everett M. Rogers diffusion studies have shown that innovations that are: feasible; compatible [with farmer’s socio-cultural milieu]; cost effective; socially and economically advantageous; divisible; simple [to use]; and ‘triable'[in bits] are always popular amongst the end-users, all things being equal. Previous investigations conducted by us have also shown that technologies or innovations that are [environmentally and farmer] user-friendly and result effective are an answer to farmers’ yearnings and aspirations.

Considering all the above innovation characteristics in the process of technology development for the small farmer will be worth the effort of the researcher after all.

Kwesi Atta-Krah
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 2

The high contribution of small-scale farmers to Africa’s agriculture is not in doubt. This group produces the lion’s share of Africa’s agricultural productivity, and also contributes significantly to the GDP of several countries. In spite of this, small scale agriculture is inadequately targeted in research interventions, especially in science and technology. This has given rise to a wrongful impression that smallholder agriculture is only about the preservation of ancient methodologies and systems, and does not need to be researched.

The future of smallholder systems is threatened if it cannot be strengthened through science and technology based research. Such research must however be explored, taking into account the key fundamentals of these systems and aim to improve overall productivity without sacrificing the core elements of their sustainability – such as their biodiversity and other elements of their system resilience. The research must also begin from a deep understanding of the smallholder circumstances and realities, and target the kind of interventions that are realistic at the smallholder scale of production. An integrated agricultural research for development approach needs to be used in which the voice of the farmer is heard in the identification of potential realistic outcomes for which S&T research is then targeted. The issue of financing however needs to be addressed as part of an integrated approach, as science and technology products could require initial capital outlay that may not be available to some farmers.

Science and technology research for small-scale farmers need to orient towards efficiency and wealth creation for smallholders. How can research help to strengthen the value of the commodities generated from smallholder systems in a sustainable manner, and how can these be linked to markets? There needs to be more emphasis on agronomic, breeding and biotechnology improvements on indigenous crops of use and importance to local people and markets. Research on integrated pest management, for instance, needs to explore the combination of indigenous knowledge with new science and technology opportunities. Such research should aim at increasing yields and the expression of traits of importance to local people and to markets. This should also include research on neglected and under-utilized species.

The role of science and technology cannot be separated from the issue of public-private partnership. The private sector needs to be supported to get involved in supporting science and technology research that improves smallholder systems and enhances the wealth creation potential of these systems. Perhaps new equity instrument should ne developed by funding agencies such as the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and other development banks, to support private sector interests and investments in science and technology that is aimed at strengthening the productivity and wealth creation of smallholder farmers.

Solomon Bangali
February 2, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 3

African Green Revolution is geared towards making every African hunger free, following a balanced diet and with enough resources to take care of other needs. This objective is in line with AU/NEPAD CAADP objectives. The CAADP Round Table process initiative is an evidence-based and outcome-based policy and implementation framework that encourages collaboration and peer review and learning across countries. It forms an important opportunity platform for exchanging ideas and information between stakeholders, development partners, donors and researchers to map out ways to an increased agricultural productivity in Africa. The food crises coupled with the problem of climate change all have significant implications for our ability to improve and increase agricultural growth. These crises came at a time when Africans had already taken their own destiny into their own hands by their governments committing 10% of their GDP to agricultural development.

Agriculture is often neglected as one of the major factors that have contributed to Africa’s economic growth over the last decade. There is no doubt that the sector has underperformed over the last decade as a consequence of its neglect by governments and development agencies that provide virtually all the funding to the sector.  Public investment in the sector fell from 6.4% in 1980 to 4.5% in 2002 (IFPRI). Donor interest in the sector also fell remarkably from 26% of annual development assistance to 4% presently.  There is a further speculation of donor disengagement.

The cuts in funding to agriculture have adversely affected the level of innovation in the sector in spite of the very high returns on investment in agricultural innovation. An evaluation of 700 agricultural research and development projects in developing countries across the world shows that investment in these projects generated an internal rate of return of 43%. Furthermore, an IFPRI study (Fan, 2008) shows that agricultural research, extension and rural infrastructure are the three most effective public spending items in promoting agricultural growth and poverty reduction. Of these three, agricultural research has the greatest overall impact on poverty in developing countries. What is more, it has been estimated that a 1% increase in crop yield reduces the number of poor people by 0.72 percent in Africa (approximately 2 million people). Thirtle et al. (2003) show that increases in crop yield have greatest impact in Africa.

The decision making process regarding investment in agricultural research and development, and innovation has not been informed by evidence. This is perhaps a consequence of weaknesses in the architecture of institutions responsible for the sector’s advocacy at various levels—national, sub regional and continental.  The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) is responsible for continental level advocacy in support of agricultural innovation, dissemination and adoption in particular CAADP Pillar IV:

(a) increased and better harmonized investment,

(b) human and institutional capacity strengthening,

(c) policies and markets(for example, trade, Biosafety and biotechnology),

(d) tested innovation practices, access to knowledge, information and technologies; and

(e) partnerships to promote innovation.   FARA’s experiences in advocating and facilitating agricultural research on the continent in order to meet the agricultural output targets set by African leaders is critical. CAADP pillar IV together with the other pillars is the response to an increase in productivity, reducing hunger and raising income of Africa’s poor.