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Frank M. Place
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

1.  The Soil Fertility Initiative.  I think it failed for several reasons.  First, it was top down led largely from the World Bank.  2.  It was even marginalized within the bank with really only one champion trying to move it forward, 3.  As far as I know there was never any new money for this – it became an approved use of World Bank country funds, but countries would have had to cut other programs, which as we know, is difficult to do in any country.  The new momentum is much broader based (institutionally) and has new money.

2.  Promoting wider adoption of soil fertility management practices.  What is written on the variability of soil constraints, even at micro scales, is very true.  It is further true that the uptake of any individual option or practice is very low with two possible exceptions:  (1) in some countries and for some higher value crops (mainly export crops) there has been high use of inputs including soil fertility management and (2) incorporation of animal manure or crop residues which are locally available by-products from other enterprises.

The overall lack of investment results from a combination of lack of incentives to invest in agriculture as a whole, lack of payoffs to the particular soil practices, or failing that, lack of credit or other resources to implement the practices.  All soil fertility management practices face some constraint in their implementation, be it cash/capital, labor, land area, irrigation/water, equipment, or other.  Because of that, their suitability to certain community and household conditions varies across the landscape, as do the soil constraints.  There is certainly no uniform technical solution, the there may be some consistent principles and approaches to follow.

So what to do?

1.  We do need better diagnoses of soil constraints because farmers truly can’t afford to be wrong about how to address their soils. They face high risks even when they are right.  Africa can’t afford too much sophistication in this, but it needs to advance from the current state of knowledge.

2.  Because of the general lack of profitability of smallholder agriculture, I just can’t see wide adoption of soil fertility practices unless there is significant public investment in the sector.  This needs to be in some of the areas mentioned – to help improve input markets, and to improve credit access by smallholder farmers.  The private sector cannot do these in Africa.  A real question is whether this is enough.  Well, it isn’t in the short run, for sure.  So I believe that smart subsidies are needed, not only for fertilizer, but to encourage the use of complementary soil fertility practices (e.g. to help support information dissemination or leguminous seed multiplication).  It seems clear from the examples we have had in recent years, that these types of investments can be very beneficial.  If they are not implemented, and agriculture production remains poor, many other costs emerge that do not enter into analysts’ equations (rising health needs, food aid, transactions costs associated with dual residence families, etc….).

3.  How to do that, what frameworks, investment strategies, partnerships, policies, institutions, etc, are needed?  Well that is not simple for sure and we do need some good ideas on that.  I am familiar with CAADP, TerrAfrica, AGRA, but haven’t really given thought to the bigger picture. Thus, I will hold off on commenting for now.

Frank M. Place, Economist
World Agroforestry Centre

Prof. Peter Little
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

I have carefully read both (1) Sandford’s and (2) Devereux and Scoones’ brief papers on the current state of East African/Horn of Africa pastoralism and possible policy scenarios and feel that Sandford’s contribution fails to capture the social and economic complexity of contemporary pastoralism in the region. The policy implications of his contribution also raise some troubling prospects. The notion of a herd ‘threshold’ to sustain pastoralism based strictly on a livestock ‘per capita’ indicator is an important means to assess viability in a relatively undiversified pastoral economy where livestock production is the only source of income.

However, most recent studies of eastern African pastoralism (including several from the 1980s) show multiple household income sources that supplement pastoral production, and in some cases actually subsidize it. Sandford rightfully shows that local income diversification in many pastoral areas is limited because of low levels of demand, urbanization, and job potential, but fails to acknowledge the most important (and rapidly growing) source of non-pastoral income in places like the Horn of Africa—and that is wage and trade-based remittances. In recent studies from northern Kenya, McPeak and Little (2005) and Little et al. (2004) show that placing a household member in waged employment outside pastoralism (and outside the range areas) increasingly is an important livelihood strategy that can enhance local food security and provide capital for reinvesting in the livestock sector. This is a growing trend—along with increased market sales, reliance on non-pastoral diets, and in some cases use of purchased feed supplements—that question the use of relatively high livestock thresholds (around 6.0 TLUs per capita) for estimating pastoral viability (also see Little et al. 2006). In fact, recent work shows that rather than treating pastoral and non-pastoral livelihood sources as competitive and/or contradictory, the latter can be an important reason why some members of families can pursue pastoral livelihoods in dry environments that are unsuitable for alternative uses without very high capital investments (in water and irrigation development, for example), while others work outside the pastoral sector (McPeak and Little 2004).

Another point to keep in mind when discussing ‘notions’ of pastoral viability and thresholds and policy is that of mobility. Mobility remains the key to managing risk in Africa ‘s rangelands but at least in the Horn/East African context it is critical to distinguish human (people) and animal mobility. With few exceptions, most of these systems no longer are nomadic (i.e., where both people and animals are mobile) but, instead, operate on a base camp/settlement and satellite herding camp model (the latter units called fora for Boran and other northern Kenyan/southern Ethiopian groups). In short, the animals remain mobile but only part of the family (often young herders) moves with the animals. Those who remain at base camps pursue a range of different livelihood strategies (milk sales, casual labor, petty trade, farming, schooling/education, etc.) that supplement pastoral incomes and make problematic the notion of ‘pure’ or specialized pastoralism, especially the nomadic version. Contrary to orthodox assumptions based on aggregate data, pastoral dependence on food aid in the region is considerably less widespread than one is led to believe. Other sources of food and income, both among base and satellite camp residents, is significantly more important than food aid (see Lentz and Barrett 2004; Little 2005; and Lind 2005). Thus, food aid dependence is not a good indicator of a ‘pastoral crisis.’

Finally, as Devereux and Scoones point out, it is important to be cognizant of how politicians and policy makers will interpret an assessment that sees mobile pastoralism as a costly, ‘dead end’ livelihood. For many state policy makers it will be used as supporting evidence for pursuing sedentarization, resettlement, and other development interventions that have an extraordinarily poor track record and have been shown to increase livelihood and food security risks for its victims. That many countries in the Horn and elsewhere in Africa have large expanses of dry lands that are unsuitable for agrarian livelihoods other than pastoralism, and investments in livestock still remain the most lucrative way of holding/storing value in these areas (both among pastoralists and non-pastoralists), means that pastoralism will be around for the foreseeable future. And pastoralism in Africa will continue to develop and evolve in response to new constraints, technologies, and opportunities, just as it has in the Middle East and North Africa where feed supplements, ‘modern’ breeding, and motorized transport (for example, trucked water) are common elements of mobile herding. African pastoralism has changed considerably in the past three decades and will continue to do so in the future. It is important, therefore, that governments and donors make the necessary infrastructural (e.g., transport and public security), economic (market infrastructure and policies), and social investments (education and health)—which they have not done to date!—to support and improve mobile pastoralism, while providing social and economic options to those who have been ‘pushed’ or opted out of pastoralism and are unlikely to reenter it.


Prof. Peter Little
Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky

Pedro Sanchez
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Increasing agricultural productivity and achieving caloric food security is a first-year goal in most of the Millennium Villages (MV) sites. Soon after the first harvest, communities in MVP areas should diversify crops both for nutritional diversity, with vegetables, fruits and livestock, and for income generation, with high-value products.

In the short term, a package of technologies, including superior germplasm, agronomic practices, and postharvest handling, must be determined in consultation with the communities and agricultural expertise in each site. In the medium and longer term, a package of services is crucial to the economic viability of agriculture. These services include: timely supply to improved seeds of staple and cash crops as well as improved livestock and vegetables; fertilizers, water, and credit; training; and the establishment and strengthening of village farmer organizations. Initially some of these services must be provided through the project, but a transition to private sector agricultural input dealers and public sector extension agents is essential. This vision will also require putting into place a package of public policies, which include input and output markets, building up grain reserves, and strengthening rural infrastructure.

Broadly, agriculture interventions aim at more robust and diversified agriculture, including nitrogen-fixing trees and cover crops, organic manures, crop rotations, soil conservation practices, livestock, aquaculture, small-scale water management, improved crop storage, and crop insurance. More specifically, soil rehabilitation techniques, which comprise a significant aspect of agriculture interventions, include:

  • Fertilizers and hybrid maize subsidies by the government
  • Joint use of mineral and organic fertilizers, the latter of which include green manures and leguminous tree fallows
  • Financial incentives for N-fixing legumes

The MVP has already seen successes with these interventions, specifically in Mwandama, Malawi, which is in the southern region of Malawi’s Zomba district. Nearly 90% of people in the Mwandama Millennium Village cluster live in extreme poverty, a much higher proportion than the 65% national level. Prior to the MVP interventions, the average maize yield without fertilizer was 0.5 tons per hectare. Most households produced enough food to last through August, meaning that families experience a six-month period of food shortage.

Mwandama suffered a drought in the year preceding the start of MVP operations. But even in good rainy seasons, the shortage of nitrogen in the soil resulted in low maize yields. After MVP initiated agriculture interventions, including those described above, maize yields increased from .8 to 6.5 t-ha-1 in 2005/06. In addition, the area planted almost doubled, and the total maize production increased nearly 15-fold. Maize yields  from farms not using improved seeds and fertilizers averaged 2.2 t-ha-1, illustrating that improved rains were only responsible for half of the yield increases.

Malawi is also seeing improvements in agricultural productivity on a national scale. Decades of intensive cultivation in the absence of significant fertilizer use has resulted in a depletion of nutrients, particularly nitrogen, from smallholder fields. National yields of smallholder maize have averaged 1.2 MT/ ha during the last 20 years, and more than half of the farming households operate below subsistence. A dry spell in 2004 had devastating impacts on maize yields. Total maize production in 2004/5 declined nearly a quarter from the previous year, providing just 57% of the national maize requirement. In response, in June 2005, the Government of Malawi began to import fertilizer and procure improved maize seed for distribution to farmers through a national subsidy scheme.

For the 2005/6 season, the Government allocated 2 million coupons sufficient fertilizer to grow maize in 1 acre (0.4 ha), at the recommended rates (86 kg N ha-1 and 11.5 kg P ha-1). An additional 740,000 coupons were allocated for growing tobacco. For maize, the recommended nutrients were provided by one 50-kg bag of 23-21-0 fertilizer and one 50-kg bag of urea. Coupons enabled farmers to purchase fertilizer at MK 950 per bag ($7.60) compared to the market prices ranging from MK 2,500 ($20) – MK 3,500 ($28).

The 2005/6 season was characterized by good rains. The total maize production more than doubled from the previous year, producing a surplus of 510,000 MT above the national maize requirement. Maize yields averaged 1.59 MT/ha, almost doubling the 0.81 MT/ha of the drought-affected 2004/5 season.  Estimates for the 2006/7 harvest illustrate a 32% increase over the 2005/6, an all-time national record for Malawi, generating a surplus of about 1.34 million MT of maize grain above national requirements.

Pedro Sanchez,
Director, Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment
Director, Millennium Villages Project
The Earth Institute at Columbia University

Mike Mortimore
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

The African soil fertility ‘problem’ (I am thinking of dryland soils) is of course a management problem, as after many decades of expanding cultivation and grazing, the basic characteristics of virgin soils have been significantly altered nearly everywhere, or stand to be altered soon. Management is based on knowledge, which is fragmented. At least three levels can be discerned:

  • Science-based knowledge, drawing on soil science and related natural science disciplines, which has enjoyed dominance since the beginning of the colonial period and has therefore led policy makers to search for technology-driven solutions
  • Policy-makers’ and donors’ perceptions, linked to that of field professionals, which has been marked by top-down and generalist tendencies that result from attitudes obtained from educational institutions, the influence of influential stakeholder groups, and donors’ home constituencies
  • Local peoples’ knowledge, which consists not merely in picturesque representations of the properties and potentials of local soils, inherited from the past (‘indigenous’ knowledge) but also in experiential and adaptive knowledge from project successes or failures as found relevant to their livelihood circumstances

Each of these crude categories has its own social ambiance. The first flourishes in universities and research stations, entangled with institutional structures and priorities and often lacking adequate ‘off-station’ inputs, often for want of resources rather than inclination. The second is driven by political targets and prejudiced in favour of grand scale interventions that attract publicity and funds. The third – insufficiently recognised – positions soil management as one component in a complex livelihood system where natural resources compete with wide-ranging livelihood objectives for the limited labour, skills and finance available.

It is only at the third level that knowledge properly confronts the complexity of local ecosystems, which have recently been characterised as ‘co-evolving human and ecological systems’ in the ‘Drylands Development Paradigm’. This level is also the only level at which the diversity issue is confronted on an everyday basis. It is at this level that well-known ‘success stories’ characterised as ‘area development’ (rather than project successes) have been worked out. There is a great gulf fixed between scientific knowledge patiently acquired from research at this level and the sweeping generalities promoted by the continental surveys and projections, and ruthlessly repeated in support of politically acceptable grand programmes in the soil fertility debate. Divergences between understanding obtained from macro- and micro-scale research should be a cause of concern. And such micro-scale research as has been undertaken is far too limited.

What is ‘success’? Given the current trends in food prices, fuel and other inputs, demographically-driven demand, urbanization, and climate change (or increasing variability), sustainable soil productivity is surely the only acceptable indicator of successful management. As such, it comes quite close to the perspective of a great many small farmers, who only ‘mine’ nutrients when their resources are constrained, and who are acutely aware of their need to pass on a productive asset to their heirs. Provided that the inheritance is assured, they invest – often with labour rather than with finance – in small-scale, intermittent, incremental  inputs over time.

In this context, the search for the ‘right’ policies continues, each with its own proponents. A question worth raising is whether the difficulties faced (so far) in hitting on demonstrably ‘successful’ strategies reflects a failure to come to terms with the fragmented and under-developed state of understanding of African soils management. Beyond the commendable use of participatory methods in projects (which pursue an external agenda) and a new emphasis on knowledge partnerships between farmers (or livestock herders), researchers, professionals and policy makers, two awkward concerns are:

  • The near-universal popularity of a diagnostic-prescriptive framework for designing intervention and promoting change. This mode, inherited from colonial forbears and an unequal exchange between scientific and local knowledge, suggests that every intervention begins afresh, as if no-one had been there before. This cannot be so, after many decades of agricultural policies and interventions affecting most of Africa. It is a consequence of the nature of development projects – nothing yesterday, funded today, impact (and withdrawal) tomorrow. Is this shallowness acceptable, or does the diagnosis need to be positioned beyond expert opinion in a more sophisticated analysis of project precursors, policy impacts, and long-term trends (for example, in rural population densities, markets, technology transformation, ecological or landscape evolution)?  This is how local people see it. Their memories are often longer than those of the institutions that seek to turn their lives upside down! Projects should be positioned through long-term understanding of transition in the countryside, not only in environmental management but also in livelihood circumstances.
  • Livelihoods approaches, although widely acknowledged to be relevant to soil management, are quite difficult to implement. How can development policy or project design deal with the possibility that investment in a bag of fertilizer may have to compete with the cost of taking a sick person to hospital? Agriculture is traditionally managed at national and donor level as a sector, but at the local level, no sector division is made. Investment decisions reflect such variables as education, attitudes, state of health, access to labour and knowledge, markets, social priorities, as well as financial resources. All these are embedded in a slow process of change that may influence how local people evaluate the prospects of technologies being promoted.

This may be a caricature of issues already familiar. But they are not always reflected, it seems, in policy debates leading up to grand programmes. Beyond the local scale, and the inspired action-research project agenda, there are methodological difficulties in scaling up temporal depth and systemic breadth, which remain as outliers in the policy debate, if recognised at all.

Mike Mortimore, Consultant
Drylands Research

Dr. Dan Taylor
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

The debate about policy frameworks for increasing soil fertility is timely given the current food crisis. Now seems an appropriate time for revisiting some of the issues.

First of all I think we need to revisit the concept of soil fertility. When resource poor farmers speak about soil fertility they mean something different to us. They refer to a ‘context’ in which the crop grows rather than a ‘content’ which the soil contains. For example in isiZulu the word umnotho has a dual meeting – it can mean either ‘wealth’ or ‘fertility’. When farmers refer to a fertile soil they say the ‘soil is with fertility or wealth’. Thus fertility provides the context for a successful harvest and the wealth that ensues.

So we might just have something to learn from resource poor farmers. Rather than asking how much N, P or K a soil might need, we might ask how do we ensure the correct context for the crop to grow? Asking the question in this way ensures that we move beyond a polemical argument around the use or non-use of fertilisers to ask how do we make the soil fertile or wealthy.

We have in Malawi started a number of on-farm maize trials and demonstrations to compare the use of fertiliser and compost manures on ‘traditional’ OPV and hybrid maize varieties. Though the results, thus far, are variable and still inconclusive, it appears that compost manures – dependent obviously on their quality – provide a viable alternative to inorganic fertilisers. However one of the main benefits of compost use are attributable to good soil moisture holding capacity but, over the past few seasons, rainfall has been excellent and so we await drier season before drawing final conclusions. Farmers have claimed that, in drier seasons,  their best maize harvest occurred where they had applied compost, but we would like to verify this for ourselves.

Given that water, rather than nutrients, is the limiting factor in African agriculture, an infertile soil may still produce a reasonable harvest. As one farmer once said to me ‘our fertiliser is the rain’. Viewed from this perspective, and in the light of the aforegoing, we can question whether soil health and wealth can be secured by the ever increasing use of  fertilisers. If nothing else, it leads us to the conclusion that farmers, and those who advise farmers, should be more cautious custodians of the land and soil.

To get back to Malawi, the growing reliance of farmers on state subsidies for otherwise unaffordable farming inputs – read fertiliser – does little to convince us that this is  the way forward for Malawian – or African  – agriculture given current predictions of climate change. Likewise the dependence on a single crop, maize, for food security, to the detriment of a range of other well-adapted crops appears to us foolhardy in the extreme given unpredictable weather patterns. Our work on soil fertility accompanies a crop diversification strategy which is designed both to promote the conservation of agricultural biodiversity and offer farmers real and lasting alternatives.

Dr. Dan Taylor, Director
Find Your Feet

Nikola Rass
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

As the moderator of the Alive/LEAD e-conference on Maintaining mobility and managing drought, Policy options for pastoral livelihoods in Sub-Saharan Africa I would like to use this opportunity to send you the summary of the discussion module 1.2. of the conference (See Annex A attached here to) as this module has lead a similar discussion on the bases of the ten legs thesis of Stephen Sandford. Furthermore I would like to use this opportunity to step out of the role of a moderator and express my personal opinion on the topic.

In my understanding, the criticisms of Scoones and Devreux concerning the TLU/person ratio put forward in the ten legs thesis of Sandford are in fact not contradictory to Sandford’s own opinion. In a recent FAO policy note on pastoral policies in Sub Saharan Africa his opinion concerning TLU/person ratios is presented as follows:
“Sandford (2006 personal communication) points out that the number of livestock needed per pastoral household also depends on the extent to which:
• Pastoralists can make use of trade to buy cheaper food in exchange for livestock and their products;
• Pastoralists have diversified their economic activities and consequently receive remittances, wages or profits.”
I am very much in favour of the ten legs thesis of Stephen Sandford, as it has helped to raise interest in the discussion of policy directions for pastoral development. As Scoones and Devreux say, it comes to show that it is time to realize a more sophisticated approach to pastoral development thinking that recognizes major resource constraints and significant challenges to pastoral livelihoods.

Most of the points Sandford puts forward convince me. However, there are some points and some policy suggestion that I do not fully agree with. I agree that emigration of a substantial proportion of pastoralists from both substantial dependence on livestock and from pastoral areas is an important strategy addressing the fundamental imbalance needs. However, I believe that diversification strategies within the pastoral system are equally important and I understand that those two strategies are not given the same priority in the 10 legs thesis.

As stated in the ten legs thesis, I consider the development of diversified income-earning opportunities not dependent on demand from within pastoral areas (e.g. in the production and gathering of “pharmaceutical” products) as a strategy, which needs to be supported. However, as already questioned in the ALive/LEAD e-conference, I believe that concerning the diversification strategies the leading question is how it can be prevented that complementary income generating activities lead to an increasing exploitation and degradation of non pastoral natural resources. What are the options to condemn the degradation around urban centers, resulting from decreased mobility of settled pastoral households? How can damaging practices like increased firewood collection, hunting and poaching etc. be confined? In this context, I believe pricing of natural resources and ensuring payment for environmental services are policy options leading in the right direction.

Concerning the exit strategies I believe it needs to be discussed whether there are (enough) alternative income generating options for pastoral people and what kind of activities they could engage in. What are the comparative advantages of pastoral people in the labour market? In my view the policy strategies to facilitate the engagement of pastoral people in alternative income generating activities should start from two angles. On the one hand investment opportunities for pastoral people need to be identified followed by the creation of access to credit and training in order to enable pastoral people to pursue the investment opportunity. On the other hand investment of the public sector in labour intensive infrastructure could create additional labour for pastoral people. For the private sector laws might be set up that set incentives to train and hire ethnic minorities including pastoral people.

I believe that the ILO INDISCO project is one of the few organisations taking into account this aspect so far. In co-operation with the Jobs for Africa Programme, the ILO-INDISCO Programme, has developed an initiative in Tanzania Simanjiro District on how to incorporate specific pastoral livelihood and employment promotion issues into the national employment policy and poverty eradication framework. The Programme addresses the current changes in the income generating activities of indigenous people, such as the Maasai, many of which move to urban areas to search for jobs. ILO-INDISCO has recognized the plight and problems of pastoral communities and has the objective to effect that the pastoral community is given more attention in the public employment sector as contemplated in ILO Convention No. 169 (ILO 1989).2

I am hesitant to accept the statement of the ten legs thesis that significant redistribution is not, in practice, feasible and I would like to see further research in this area. I believe that a pivotal point for the investigation of rehabilitation strategies seems to be to get a better understanding of the ongoing transformations of traditional schemes of redistribution and to find answers to the question why contract herding for absentee herd-owners is becoming a new trend. Although the positive records of successful restocking programmes seem small to me, I like the idea to induce the purchase of livestock from destitute pastoralists (with very small herd) to less destitute pastoralists (pastoralists with herd size at the edge of viability), while at the same time establishing programs of alternative income generation for the destitute pastoralists. This would, on the one hand, provide destitute pastoralists with start-up capital and, on the other, ensure that marginalized pastoralists have access to female breeding stock and are not forced to work for absentee herd owners.

The only policy suggestion in the ten legs thesis that I strongly disagree with is the suggestion to develop, more productive and more sustainable rain-fed or irrigated crop-agriculture within or near pastoral areas into which previous pastoralists can switch their livelihoods. As Scoones (1994) and Niamir-Fuller and Turner (Niamir-Fuller and Turner 1999) put forward the areas which offer possibilities for farming are especially important for livestock production. In dry seasons or in dry years, these relatively small patches within a wider dryland landscape are the key resources that sustain animals in times of fodder shortage. The exclusion of pastoralists from these key pastoral resources can lead to significant disruption of the annual transhumance cycle. In line with Scoones (1994) I believe that enhancing or even creating key-resource-areas by investing in these key sites could be a practicable way to improve the primary productivity of rangelands (e.g. investment in fodder management, planting of fodder shrubs and trees, reseeding) by leading to productivity enhancement in good years and offering survival feeding in poor years.

Reading the first responses to the note of Scoones and Devreux and the note of Stephen Sandford, it seems that the latter is always referred to as a pessimistic and the prior as the optimistic perspective. This makes me feel that synthesis of both views would lead us to a somewhat realistic perspective and I hope that the debates lead here and elsewhere will lead us there.

Jennie Barron
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

“Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility mgmt approach? If so what should a programme look like bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?”

First comment:

The best entry point is fertiliser (organic/inorganic) COUPLED with improved water mgmt at field scale. Multiple approaches (technologies) are available, and no single solution can be used as blanket for the wide variety of farmers ….. The COUPLING of fertiliser with water is more essential the drier the agro-climatic conditions. Water mgmt alone will not diminish the current yield gaps on in-fertile soils with low input/low re-circulation of organic matter. Equally,  the full benefit of fertiliser (organic/in organic) inputs will not be realised without addressing water limitations by recurring dry spells and possibly droughts in semiarid and sub humid climatic zones.

Multiple benefits of increased re-circulation of OM in a crop system will not be sequestered if C/N quota isn’t favourable: Thus, the input of (inorganic) N may be a essential component to increase yields, as it enables a favourable C/N, increase overall biomass, and enables re-circulation of OM back to soils putting a cropping system on positive soil health trajectory.

It is not a matter of doing water or fertiliser ‘first’:  With current available knowledge, the important issue is how to effectively provide knowledge input linking at first water and nutrient management packages, but also soon the use of improved varieties. Only the coupling can achieve substantial yield increases over relatively short time (possibly 5-10 years with effective knowledge/awareness spread??).

To my mind (not with any solid evidence that it works of course)

  • subsidised fertiliser, specifically targeting  macro as well as micro nutrients in the area of distribution: subsidising fertiliser have had fast & positive response in Malawi , partly due to favourable rains enabling the positive response of fertiliser input (any other evidence at national scale in recent times in SSA?)
  • strong emphasis on fertiliser distribution coupled with water management small and large scale investments
  • development and distribution of improved seeds to further boost investment gains in water & fertilizer (evidence??)
  • the current trend of privatising extension service will most likely  not help promote technological sound packages in soil-water-crop mgmt that are diverse enough to address smallholder farmers knowledge gaps. Privatising rural extension service may be more beneficial to specific farmers, and more promote specific use of crops and agro-inputs not necessarily managing negative environmental (and social) externalities very well… It will also only be affordable to certain income strata (evidence?)

‘How should success and impact be defined?’
Second comment:

Raising the yields, i.e. realising the potential with better water and nutrient management will have environmental impacts as well as social. There are no longer any space that are not utilised or provides produce and services necessary for humans and society. Any agricultural development, whether intensifying existing systems through nutrients and water, seeds etc, or expansion will have effects on surrounding landscape. Some of these are positive, and some can be negative. The ‘next’ /first? / ‘triple/ green revolution in Africa must be continuously evaluated for social as well as environmental impact. It cannot be acceptable that the negative environmental (and perhaps social??) impacts of the green revolution in Asia are reproduced. It would create extremely costly avenues to re-tract such negative effects of agricultural development, which can be ill-afforded both from economic (Africa by and large strapped for cash) as well as climate adaptation perspectives (measures in agriculture development needs to be climate change ‘proofed’ to avoid future costs & livelihood losses).

There is globally, and occasionally regional and nationally, awareness, and willingness to consider pro-active measures to avoid negative externalities. However, such measures usually tend to add cost without adding visible (economic) value in short term…

Example: when smallholder farmers in a given area adopted conservation tillage (as desirable), there was a tendency to put more land into production, i.e. area expansion of agriculture, which globally can be ill afforded, although feasible locally.

Example: the use of treadle pumps have at local spots been popular & provided users with much needed cash income, further investment in agriculture production and development opportunities as well as achieved absolute poverty alleviation. However, non-monitored water level has tended to decrease altering downstream seasonality of flows and user opportunities…

Clearly, success and impact are not solely about short term yield increases, not even about poverty alleviation per se. Both these obvious criteria need to be integrated with long term measures of environmental and social sustainability: negotiating  tradeoffs, building resilient systems which can cope better with change/stress, whether climatic, economic or other,. It is crucial in agro-development that the resource base (of which  we have comparatively good basic knowledge ) is maintained and not ‘mined’ whether it refers to land area, soil nutrient, or water management…Thus it is necessary that agro-development is environmentally and socially monitored and evaluated to ensure development takes a desired route, and avoid undermining negative externalities (social and environmental) in the near and far future

Jennie Barron, Research fellow in water management
Stockholm Environment Institute/SEI

Toyin Kolawole
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Addressing Africa’s soil problems would demand that a critical attention be paid to the fundamentals of the African soil peculiarity itself.  Although inevitable, inorganic mineralisation/fertilisation cannot and will never be an ideal entry point for an integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) in sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons are not far-fetched. One, Africa’s soil, as variously argued, is said to be low in cation exchange capacity (CEC). In other words, soils with low CEC tie up essential nutrients making them unavailable for plant use, even in situations where the soil has been adequately and inorganically fertilised. Studies have shown, too, that releasing these essential nutrients are made possible through the application of organic matter. For me, that is the foundation for resolving the Africa’s soil constraints.

Two, majority of small farmers in Africa, as widely claimed, cannot afford the cost of inorganic fertilisers. Getting the products to buy is also a daunting problem for the few who are willing to adopt the technology! Three, some farmers in certain locality (e.g. some community people in North-central Nigeria) do not even see reasons why they should use imported or foreign products to boost the fertility of their farmland. Using such foreign materials would, according to them, spell doom for bumper harvest! This is factual, albeit strange and hard to believe. This brings me to the fundamental issue of culture in the whole debate on soil improvement in Africa.

ISFM, as it were, has not been conceived to ensure the proper incorporation of the cultural dimension of soil management. Harping on other factors ranging from political to social to environmental to economic, no adequate emphasis has been placed on cultural factors of the small farmer. Regardless of any economic rewards brought about by any form of change amongst them, grassroots farmers respond more quickly to their values and cultural belief systems. Any policy framework that does not take cognisance of this all important aspect is almost destined for a stillbirth either in the short or long run.

That said, appropriate policies on soil revitalisation in Africa would start from good governance. A platform for synchronising resources, governance – as reflected in the political economy and ecology of soil management – will need to prioritise both farmers’ and scientific knowledge in the policy formulation process. Rather than pay too much emphasis on science alone, the two bodies of knowledge need be made to work hand in hand without jeopardising the position of any of them.  In other words, local or indigenous knowledge in soil conservation needs a voice as much as science does in policy formulation processes.

Now to the specifics. As organic mineralisation appears to answer the question, national governments need to pay attention to the development of local/indigenous plants [using local raw materials] for the manufacture of organic fertilisers in Africa. A typical example of this ‘fledgling’ initiative can be found in Ibadan, Nigeria. Public-private partnership seems to be the most ideal in the development of this industry as government may not be able to shoulder the responsibility alone. Doubtlessly, farmers are more likely to have access to this product than inorganic fertiliser in terms of costs and availability. As it is locally sourced, problems of adaptation and utilisation might not arise. Sourcing mineral fertilisers to compliment the organic ones would need a radical approach by Africa’s national governments. Distributions and supply needs to be strongly and directly linked with farmer Cooperatives and organisations in order to circumvent the influence of the rent-seeking elite in the [political] corridor of power.

In addition to ISFM, soil recapitalisation may need some urgent attention at this time, too. Agreed that the use of rock phosphates may have its associated problems such as low reactivity, variability and the likes, addressing it through context-specific approach might be meaningful afterall. For instance, Ogun RockPhosphate in Nigeria has been found to be economically viable. It is said to compete favourably well with mineral fertilisers on acidic soils. Its solubility has been enhanced when tried with soil amendments (such as compost and mycorrhizae). It has, thus, been found to be a better source of phosphorus when applied in mixture with organic waste than using it alone (Adediran et al. 2006). This strategy would succeed where there is the ‘political will’ to make it work.

Going beyond the rhetoric of participatory methodologies in soil fertility research, scientists would need to allow farmers take the lead in the process. This is because farmers are good Pedologists and Soil micro-biologists in their own capacity. They know their farm terrain. They know the trends of their soils usage and how they have performed over the years. They could work with researchers to identify local materials for the production of soil amendments. Given a favourable platform, farmers could devise a more appropriate approach and context-specific strategies on soils sustainability. For me, these are some of the important issues for consideration in the development of a policy framework for a sustainable soil management in the 21st Century and beyond in sub-Saharan Africa.

Adediran, J. A., Adeniyan, J. A., Akande, M. O. and Taiwo, L. B. 2006. Effect of application of Ogun Rock Phosphate with organic waste on yield performance of maize and cassava. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Soil Science Society of Nigeria. Markudi. 148 – 154.

Toyin Kolawole, PhD
Institute of Development Studies

A final reflection from Stephen Sandford…
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

I am allowed only two pages to respond to all the comments made in this debate on the Too Many People Too Few Livestock (TMPTFL) thesis that I have put forward. My response is, therefore, necessarily brief, eclectic and curt.

The minimum livestock/person ratio
Some contributors to this debate (Devereux/Scoones, Catley, Swift) have criticised my use of figures (numbers) on the grounds that their apparent precision is not justified in the light of the heterogeneity of situations or the quality of the data. But the general TMPTFL thesis is not dependent on, for example, a particular universal value of the minimum livestock/person ratio. Leg 2 of the thesis would be equally effective in supporting the general thrust of the thesis if it were worded. “Many pastoralists in the Horn of Africa, do not currently have enough livestock, given the general pattern of their livelihoods in pastoralism, cropping and other economic activities, to continue, in the long term, in a way of life substantially dependent on range-based livestock production.” Leg 3 would then have to be rephrased in terms of “the maximum feed-limited total size of herd being less than the number of livestock needed to provide enough to enable these pastoralists in the long term to continue in a way of life substantially dependent on range-based livestock production”.

If a person who is averse to any precise value of the ratio would agree to this reformulation of Legs 2 and 3 they could still adhere to the TMPTFL thesis. A precise value of the ratio is, however, useful as an indicator of particular area-based or ethnic groups of pastoralists, or of wealth or gender-based sections within these groups, where the imbalance between people and livestock has reached such a level that a major focus of action should be to reduce the number of people dependent on range-based livestock production.

I have already drawn a distinction between two classes of pastoralists, “pure” (i.e. ones not significantly dependent on cropping) and “agro”-pastoralists and suggested a different value of the minimum ratio for each. One could, as information and analysis improves, draw further distinctions between sub-classes of each of these classes, e.g. by gender of household head or by type of diversification, with a different minimum livestock/person ratio attached to each sub-class, enabling more accurate indication of population pressure.

What the TMPTFL general thesis maintains is that, whatever the sophistication of sub-classification that one uses, a substantial proportion of the pastoralists and pastoral areas of the Horn of Africa will be found to be already in the category where the major focus should be on the reduction of the range-based population. Diversification

The most frequent (Little, Swift, Cullis, Abdi Abdullahi as well as Devereux/Scoones) and fundamental disagreement between me and other contributors to this debate has been about the potential for diversification of economic activity to offset (and more than offset) the loss of income and welfare arising from the declining ability of range-based livestock production to meet the needs of the population wanting to lead a astral life. This disagreement really covers three distinct but related issues. For each I specify the issue and set out my views on it.

(i) Is diversification a practical solution everywhere? While diversification into trading or employment is possible in many pastoral communities, in others it is not. In North East Turkana, for example, “There are no alternative livelihoods. Education and skill levels are very low for employment” (Levine and Crosskey, 2006, p. 19). People live off their livestock, barter-exchange, wild food, and, in the case of the poor (45-65% % of the total), about 50% of their income is made up of aid (mainly cash for work) and social support.
(ii) Is diversification into activities outside pastoral areas feasible for all? While both sides agree that diversification into economic activities outside the pastoral area is a good thing, and may supply “remittances” to parts of households still residing in pastoral areas, access to taking part in these activities, which often offer regular salaries/wages, is much easier for the wealthy than for the poor (Homewood et al. 2006, p.22).
(iii) How much do the poor gain from diversification? The advantaged position of the wealthy in income diversification applies not only to out-of-pastoral-area diversification but to within-area also. The poorest sections of the population find it difficult to be involved in activities except those depending on local natural resources, and primarily on local demand (firewood, basket- and mat-making, charcoal-making). As Devereux (2006, p. 78) notes of Somali Region in Ethiopia: “Selling charcoal and firewood are, in fact, the most common livelihood activities recorded in rural communities, after livestock rearing and crop farming (Table 7.3). However, these ways of generating income should not be seen as chosen or preferred, but instead as “last resort” options adopted by people who are poor and desperate for any income at all. The work is arduous and time-consuming and the returns are tiny”.  Devereux reports that these activities yield household incomes on average less than 25% of the average for all activities carried out by pastoralists, and that, indeed, they yield lower incomes than “begging”.

Similarly Radeny (2006, p. 9) reports, of a pastoral/agro-pastoral area right next door to Nairobi: “With respect to income diversification, poorer households (i.e. in the lowest income quintile) actually have more income sources than the wealthier ones, although off-land earnings are much lower and from less reliable sources (e.g. petty trade). Figure 2 [not reproduced here] shows that households in the higher income quintiles have a larger proportion of their incomes coming from wages and business, for example, while those in the lower ones depend more on petty trading and other informal sector activities to help them diversify their incomes”.

The PARIMA group of researchers has shown how difficult it is for a household whose herd size has fallen below a critical size (e.g. see Lybbert et al. 2004, p. 769) ever to rebuild it again. Instead herd size continues to decrease and sedentarisation, to enable the households better to diversify their livelihoods, is almost inevitable. John McPeak and Peter Little (2004, p. 102) have concluded; “The findings in this chapter corroborate earlier work on pastoralism that suggests sedentarisation attracts both poor and relatively wealthy herders (Barth, 1964; Little, 1985). The latter group appears ‘blessed’ in the kinds of opportunities they can pursue and the degree of support that they can provide the pastoral sector and their mobile relatives and family members. In contrast, the poor appear ‘cursed’ in the kinds of un-remunerative activities they engage in and the extent to which they are caught in a vicious cycle of low incomes, low mobility, and high food insecurity”. Possibly the most detailed location-specific fieldwork yet undertaken on diversification activities among pastoralists and agro-pastoralists is that by the Anthropology Department of University College, London. Some results are reported in Homewood et al. 2006. They basically confirm that the wealthy do much better out of diversification than the poor, who in the process become increasingly vulnerable and undergo a downward spiral of progressive loss of access to land, livestock and labour central to pastoral and agropastoral livelihoods.

I think that the evidence presented on these specific issues should make us very cautious about assuming that spontaneous diversification will, by itself, solve the problem set by increasing population pressure and technological stagnation in pastoralism. It is the poorer pastoralists who are being forced out of pastoralism, but it is they who are, at present, least able to diversify or find new economic activities in which to specialize. Consequently, without prospect of better alternatives, they cling to the forlorn hope that they can once again become independent pastoralists. Their individually diminutive herds nevertheless together constitute a significant proportion of the total herd who compete for scarce livestock feed with the herds of more viable pastoralists but it is a proportion whose driving force is accumulation rather than production and whose fate is often forced sale in poor condition or death by starvation rather providing a real economic return. We need to find ways of enabling those squeezed out of pastoralism to pursue less risky and more rewarding livelihoods. Education and language skills are key issues in this (Tomoya Matsumota et al. 2006; Homewood et al. 2006 (p.23). However in the case of some pastoral groups there are additional constraints to their securing satisfactory livelihood opportunities outside the pastoral areas. Cultural factors, a lack of personal contacts in urban areas to facilitate the transition, and lack of capital may also be serious issues. We need to be better informed about these constraints and about ways to tackle them. We will probably need also substantial specific investments to create employment and livelihoods, e.g. in irrigation, in cases where it seems unlikely that ex-pastoralists will be able to secure adequate opportunities in the general expansion of the national economies.

  1. While some contributors to the debate query whether there is a crisis in Horn of Africa pastoralism at all, most accept that there is and I do not, therefore, present further evidence for its existence.
  2. The original paper by me which started this debate, as published on the Future Agricultures website, referred to eleven “legs”, but then apparently listed only 10. This was due to an error in which I mistakenly merged two Legs (3 and 4) with a consequent renumbering of the remainder. In this “reply” the numbering of the Legs follows that of the paper as it appeared on the website.
  3. It is pertinent to note here that in the last year or so an export market for charcoal from this region has been developed and charcoal burning and selling is no longer the preserve of the poor.

Russell Yost
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

We are deeply interested in improving and assisting address the serious mining of nutrients and carbon in Sub-Saharan Africa. We are just concluding some research into providing ways to address the extremely tenuous supply of nutrients, especially in the Sahel of West Africa where the majority of the inhabitants are living on the brink of famine.

Two types of interventions are needed in our view: one that addresses the inherent problems with the loss of the meagre, irregular rainfall and the other that improves soil properties so that capture and harvesting of water is improved.

A recent paper describing the increased crop yields can be found at:
– Gigou, J., Kalifa Traoré, François Giraudy, Harouna Coulibaly, Bougouna Sogoba, Mamadou Doumbia. 2006. Aménagement paysan des terres et réduction du ruissellement dans les savanes africaines. Cahiers Agricultures vol. 15, n° 1, janvier-février 2006 Vol. 15.

A subsequent paper describing the water-harvesting properties of the technology – the water capture and increased retention of surface water for crops, subsoil water for trees, and deep drainage for groundwater restoration can be found at:
– Kablan, R., R.S. Yost, K. Brannan, M. Doumbia, K. Traore, A. Yorote, Y. Toloba, S. Sissoo, O. Samake, M. Vaksman, L. Dioni, and M. Sissoko.
2008. “Amenagement en courbes de niveau”, increasing rainfall capture, storage, and drainage in soils of Mali. Arid Lands Research and Management 22:62-80.

A third paper is soon to appear in Agronomy for Sustainable Development reports on the C sequestration and build up potential of the ACN technology and the increased fertilizer efficiency is announced at:

In the broadest sense, SFI arguably includes inorganic fertilizers, organic amendments and natural resource management practices.

When I was a student in Agricultural Economics at the University of Nairobi a fellow graduate student from another department once asked me in puzzlement the following question in response to my assertion that many poor farmers lack incentives for fertilizer use: ‘’What other incentive is anyone looking for than the ability to grow enough food for one’s family without having to buy it?’’ The answer that readily came to my mind was: ‘’Yes that is a powerful incentive but at what cost?’’

Russell Yost, Dep. Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences
University of Hawai`i at Manoa