Report on the Africa College International “Food Security, Health and Impact” Knowledge Brokering Conference


22 – 24 June 2011, Leeds, UK, by Colin Poulton

Africa College is a research partnership between University of Leeds (Faculties of Biological Sciences, Environment, Medicine and Health), IITA and ICIPE that aims “to improve the lives of millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa by a sustainable enhancement of their food and nutritional security”. David Howlett (ex-DFID, now University of Leeds) seems to be a key link person in bringing the partners together.

Africa College research focuses on:

  • Plant science to meet the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing population under conditions of reduced water availability, limited additional agricultural land and impacts of climate change (including higher temperatures, new pest and disease challenges)
  • Nutrition and health, including mycotoxins (food safety) and the connections between agriculture and dietary diversity
  • Climate change and environmental sustainability
  • Ecology and ecosystem services, including soil fertility, pollination and crop protection (natural control mechanisms).

A cross-cutting theme of Africa College is achieving impact of scientific research, which was, therefore, the theme of this conference. The conference was attended by c.180 participants, of whom c.50 were from University of Leeds. In addition to the Africa College partners, there was a significant presence from ICRAF/WAC, including both Dennis Garrity (outgoing DG) and Tony Simons (incoming DG). Keynote speakers included Bob Watson (DEFRA), Lindiwe Sibanda (FANRPAN), Akin Adesina (AGRA) and Tim Lang (City University).


Bob Watson talked about the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing population under conditions of reduced water availability, limited additional agricultural land and impacts of climate change. He argued that currently we are “not science limited” – there are plenty of technologies sitting on shelves because lack of rural development means that systems do not exist for people to access them. However, he then noted plenty of new scientific challenges going forward!

I listened to Lindiwe and Akin’s presentations with a particular interest in what they would (or wouldn’t) say about politics. Akin argued that progress in tackling low agricultural productivity (the root – should it be “proximate”? – cause of food insecurity in Africa) requires: technologies, supportive policies (to drive change to scale), markets, political will, financing and infrastructure. This is not a bad list! However, his critique of policies focused on structural adjustment, which, whilst undoubtedly having validity, avoids the challenges posed by the current political economy context.

Tim Lang was refreshingly different from the normal fare at such conferences. He talked (perhaps predictably, but still good to hear!) of the complete lack of sustainability in current western diets and food systems. He argued that western food systems are driven by corporate interests (governments do not control food systems), with the result that there are huge, negative environmental and health externalities[1]. Thus, Africa should not emulate the west in pursuing a productivist path. However, having criticised “sustainable intensification” as the latest repackaging of productivism, he accepted in private that Africa needs this. In his view, if Africa is to avoid ending up down the same unsustainable path as the west, the key area that needs attention is consumption patterns. However, nobody has yet come up with convincing answers regarding who has to do what to prevent low income countries going through the same nutrition transition, with all its attendant health costs, as wealthier countries.

Dennis Garrity presented a powerful vision of “evergreen agriculture”, i.e. agro-forestry based, as a way for African agriculture to respond to the needs of rising populations (hence falling land sizes), rising fossil fuel prices and the need to grapple with climate change. According to FAO and others, whilst forests are shrinking around the world, trees on farms are expanding. In Africa he talked about Faidherbia albida in southern highlands of Tanzania and Malawi (tripling maize yields on adopter farms over a 10-20 year period without any access to inorganic fertiliser) and about the ongoing “greening of the Sahel”. He has done a great job in repositioning WAC as an important player for the challenges facing agriculture in the 21st century.

Parallel Workshop Sessions

These were supposed to focus on lessons learnt in how to achieve impact from scientific research, but often strayed more broadly than this. I did not discern much that was genuinely new, although some examples of good practice were presented, e.g. WAC work promoting fodder shrubs in East Africa[2]. An important observation on this work, however, is that research organisations have got drawn into it primarily due to the absence of an effective extension system (which “should” be taking proven technologies and scaling them out). WAC is one of the promoters of the forthcoming conference on extension to be held in Nairobi in November.

The WAC workshop also contained a potentially very interesting paper by Mike Norton-Griffiths, a consultant who has done GIS-referenced aerial surveys of smallholder farms all over Kenya and now has regression analysis showing how net returns per ha (using Tegemeo crop budgets) are influenced by, amongst other things, inclusion of trees in the farming system and land tenure system (freehold vs traditional). He finds significant effects for both (with striking magnitudes) plus an important interaction effect. I would like to see the methodology in more detail, but the findings did not fit with my understanding of the endogenous land tenure literature.

Other sessions looked, inter alia, at engaging the private sector for impact (upscaling technology adoption), value chain approaches for researchers and working with farmer organisations. Bill Vorley (IIED) issued the challenge that some form of farmer organisation is a requirement for participation in most new value chain initiatives, but that formal farmer organisation coverage cannot possibly extend from its current 5-10% of farmers to 70%+ in the timescale required for participation in new buyer-driven value chains, so we have to think about a variety of ways of linking farmers to such chains (not just contract farming, but new types of indigenous private intermediary).

Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa

I was given a slot in a so-called knowledge exchange session – one parallel session of 6, where I made a brief (in theory!) presentation and provoked discussion (total: 30 minutes). It was well attended – 25+ people, the room was full! – and I received positive feedback, hopefully stimulating interest in our work when reports at last emerge.


Presentations from the conference can be downloaded.

  1. Other parts of the world are following suit (supermarketisation, the nutrition transition), but he didn’t really have time to talk about this.
  2. After 10 years of work, it is estimated that 200,000+ households grow these shrubs, mainly on the borders of their fields and on soil conservation bunds, as a source of feed for dairy cows and goats. For comparison, there are an estimated 2 million households engaged in dairy production in the region.