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Kwesi Atta-Krah
February 1, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 1

The subject of making farmers’ voices heard should be central in the green revolution that we intend to create. The green revolution for Africa can only happen if farmers in different communities are able to take ownership and make contributions in decisions that influence their livelihoods and their agriculture. Often times the feeling is that we the scientists have all the answers and that the farmers only need to take what comes from us.

This model has proven time and time again to be flawed and unworkable, I believe.Making farmers’ voices heard also does not happen necessarily through participation of a couple of Farmer Organization officials at series of workshops and conferences. In other instances such farmer representatives are invited to participate in research planning or project development initiatives. While such levels of participation may be necessary, they do raise the question of “who is representing whom” and what happens after these various events.

In all such instances of representation, there is often a lot of talk, which is never followed through, and the farmers on the ground never even know that these interactions have taken place. Sometimes also, some farmer representatives do find themselves in unfamiliar territory of researchers and scientists, who simply go ahead and do what they have planned to do anyway. In other cases, the farmer representatives may find themselves completely out-gunned by the research and development partners – sometimes even to the point of feeling intimidated. Even when Farmers make contributions at such fora, they are hardly ever taken into account as part of the inputs for developing the solutions. This is a situation where the farmers may speak, but no space has been created for incorporating their concerns. This point was amplified in the contribution made by Ralph von Kauffmann in an earlier contribution to this discussion.

What I believe is needed is a mechanism for creating space for farmers at different levels to meet in a “farmers’ consultation” to deliberate on particular issues, make their key concerns known, and get involved in identifying mechanisms that could lead to a resolution of the challenges. Scientists, researchers and development workers could be invited to participate in such farmer-driven consultation processes, but principally to listen and to learn. Farmers must be empowered and encouraged and capacitated to be in the drivers’ seat, in voicing out the issues and making suggestions on way forward. This would also include identifying challenges for which some resolution is required either through research or through policy changes, etc. Once such capacities and processes have been established, researchers would find it very rewarding in working jointly with the farmer representatives in sharing ideas on possible solutions and planning some joint activities to resolve outstanding challenges and finding solutions.

It is in this respect that I express my support for the process that was highlighted in the contribution of Amdissa Teshome, Chief Consultant, A-Z Consult. He highlighted four steps that need to be fully farmer oriented in implementation:

(i) Community consultations;

(ii) Regional validation workshops;

(iii) National policy dialogue forum- for farmers; and finally, and

(iv) Policy engagement. All these processes are developed with farmers in the driver’s seat, and with farmers empowered to brainstorm and seek to contribute to finding solutions to the problems facing them.

Amdissa Teshome
February 1, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 1

I am very pleased to make a contribution to this theme based on the experience of Future Agricultures work in Ethiopia over the last 2 years. It is well established that policy making in most African countries including Ethiopia has been and continue to be top down. The elite group (the researchers, the politicians) think they know what the farmers want and design policies and programmes with little or no consultation with farmers.

Future Agricultures in Ethiopia has developed an all inclusive policy dialogue process that brings farmers voices to policy makers and make them heard. This process involves four steps:   

Step I:  Community consultations: engage a cross-section of community members in a dialogue on the future of agriculture. These include the elderly, adult farmers and pastoralists, youth and children (future farmers and pastoralists) and private investors.  In all categories women are represented equally.

Step II: Regional validation workshops: findings from Step 1 are validated/enriched at regional workshops with researchers, academics, regional agricultural officers, NGOs and donors, farmer representatives and private investors. Farmers’ voices are being heard at this stage.

Step III:  National policy dialogue forum: a farmers’ voices are brought to the national level and presented at a series of national forum in the presence of senior government officers, donors, NGOs and CSOs and parliamentarians.  

Step IV: Policy engagement: armed with farmers’ voice, policy engagement and influencing has began. Although this is principally a bottom up process, policymakers are consulted/informed at all levels.  

This process has now led to the creation of a Forum on Future Agricultures in which farmers’ voices will be brought to the attention of regional and national policy makers on a continual basis.

Ralph von Kaufmann
January 29, 2010 / African Green Revolution - Theme 1

I am in full accord with the advocates for enhancing the farmer’s voice. But I have to ask the question “And then what?” There will be little point in giving the farmers voice if there is no one ready to listen and respond. I agree with the argument that we must move from being technology driven and simply seeking uses for new information technology to becoming farmer centric. However, I am not convinced that we, including myself, fully understand what that implies.

Empowerment is synonymous with becoming knowledge-able and there are a lot of dedicated people doing good pioneering work in finding ways by which farmers can become be provided with both the information and the learning tools they need to form new knowledge appropriate to their unique situations. Some significant successes can be found in the South Asian and African partnerships of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) in promoting rural lifelong learning. Amongst the many others interesting approaches are the new concepts supported by the WK Kellogg and Bill Melinda Gates Foundations for barefoot universities and learning circles.
If these efforts are successful there will be growing numbers of farmers hungry to learn and who will be equipped with the physical and intellectual tools they need to utilise new information to build on their own funds of knowledge. Supposing that succeeds, as it must, where would they go to for the specific tailored information that they would want? Africa’s extension services are not well equipped or trained to deal with the many and highly varied questions that the farmers would ask by SMS, e-mail, MP3 players etc. The agricultural research institutes and the universities do not have the necessary linkages with rural communities, the agricultural research systems, or the staff incentive to respond on a daily basis to farmers’ questions.
The vision is beginning to clear of an interconnected agricultural knowledge system linking farmers (at rural learning communities, barefoot universities, learning circles, and farmer learning groups etc.) to agricultural information providers which are themselves interconnected so that the farmers will not get advice from whomever they happen to be connected to but from the person best qualified to answer.
The different components such as rural learning facilities, technology mediated distance education (TechMODE), open access training resources, training of facilitators to promote learning, automated FAQs, quality assurance systems, etc. are being advanced.
However, is sufficient thought being given to how it will all be brought together and to the reform and change management needed to develop the new mind sets and the very different incentives that will have to be devised to get all the actors involved in this 21st century way of empowering farmers to drive agricultural and rural development.

Jerome Gefu
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Professor Paul Collier’s thesis incriminating poor countries for lack of progress in food production, especially in the wake of the worsening global food crisis (and economic meltdown?) as hinging on the preponderance of small farms raises more questions than proffering feasible and sustainable solutions.   One question is: for whom do large-scale commercial farmers in poorer countries produce?

The argument for big farms as a means of boosting food production does not provide answer for the food shortage experienced in Africa and other poor regions. This is because most (if not all) of the large-scale commercial farmers in these regions produce essentially for Western markets where they are able to recoup their investments faster than they would have if they had targeted their production for domestic markets, where agricultural produce pricing is very erratic and responsive to a variety of environmental, socio-economic and political  uncertainties. These capital rich investors who are often members of the political and economic elite are able to easily deploy resources. However, there are only a handful of such advantaged capital rich investors that are willing to invest in food production for the purpose of alleviating domestic food crisis. Even when large scale farming had been embarked upon in most African countries, monumental failure had repeatedly been bitterly encountered.

The bulk of African farmers are resource-limited residing in remote areas. It was the small farms that dot African communities that feed the various populations in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a fact that these countries, like Nigeria , produced in excess of home consumption needs. Indeed, Nigeria (in the years preceding the discovery and exploration of oil) was a net exporter of food and agricultural products, deriving the bulk of her national income from agriculture. Those were the days of groundnut pyramids, cotton, rubber, cocoa, oil palm, grain and vegetable exports. These products came from the numerous small farms even as limited as they were in “modern farming inputs.” What went wrong, one might ask. Several things were amiss including the strong drive to modernize agriculture by employing large-scale production strategies with little or no regard for the prevailing institutional, cultural, environmental, socio-economic and other agricultural production considerations.

The African farmer is vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and is ill-prepared (and, therefore, caught off guard) when disasters come knocking. There are limited facilities and expertise for early warning devices. Conversely, in times of good harvests, producers have great difficulty in marketing excess crop and dairy products. The resulting glut results in depressed farm gate price and often producers are compelled to sell at significant losses. Post-harvest technologies, especially for preserving perishable foods are still being developed, the post-harvest losses are staggering. This could serve as disincentive to produce. Agricultural insurance scheme is almost non-existent for the smallholder. In times of losses, the farmer receives no compensation as every loss is borne by the farmer and his/her household.

Coming from the background of extreme poverty, the productivity of resource-limited farmers has declined steadily over the years. In many instances, land degradation has resulted in declining erosion and/or siltation, deforestation, overgrazing and desertification. The end result is food insecurity, which manifests in de-humanizing experiences (hunger, poverty, disease, etc). This scenario is aggravated by the increasing rate of land alienation to the economic and political elite who appropriate massive expanse of land for speculative purposes. This has resulted in the loss of land by majority of rural poor who are either forced to migrate out of the rural area and constitute themselves into a social menace in already congested cities, or become tenants to land merchants and land speculators. Many farmers and pastoralists who have lost access to land and/or livestock are increasingly converted to contract farmers for national multinational conglomerates.

Some past efforts geared at improving agricultural and food productivity have focused attention primarily on the injection of scientifically proven technologies that have led to substantial increase in crop and livestock production. Many of such introduced varieties have been found unsuitable because they are often not compatible with the agro-ecological conditions and farming systems of many African farming communities. Many of the introduced crop and livestock species required high-level inputs and management, which the poor farmer cannot provide. Where new varieties have been adopted and found to be well suited to the agro-climatic conditions, the resulting high yields have found limited market outlet. The resulting glut, coupled with the cheap imported foods from the West, African producers are faced with serious glut and depressed price and accompanying loss of income. Above scenario calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of policies and programmes primarily targeted at the smallholder farmers of Africa .  Even where the scientific investments can lead to improved productivity, unless the poor have secure property rights the benefits are often expropriated by the powerful once the often poor quality of land has been restored meaning that the poor not only loose from the technical improvements but they loose on the value of the labour equity that has gone into improving productivity.

To get the African farmer out of the woods and be launched into prosperity, the aforementioned constraints must be meticulously addressed. For the region, the starting point for improved food production and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger is a complete overhauling of the institutional and policy environment. Reforms must be embarked upon by African leaders and peoples with every sincerity of purpose.

For us, the first step is to undertake a comprehensive land reform such that every rural producer shall be guaranteed secure access to crop and grazing land in pursuant of legitimate livelihoods. This calls for a re-thinking and re-engineering of land use and land tenure regulations and policies which would facilitate access to and use of land. Since most African communities access land through customary arrangements, land policies must of necessity include customary land arrangements which can be easily supervised through existing traditional institutional arrangements. Land policy guidelines must of necessity be couched within the socio-cultural milieu of the African society.  This way, customary land-users will have secure right.

Achieving food security will largely be determined by the willingness of African leaders to make a clean break from past business of government and imbibe the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability, rule of law, equity and fairness. It is this “business unusual” that will propel the engine of social and economic growth through the execution of people-oriented programs and institutional reforms. The thrust here is to provide enabling environment for enhancing the productivity and income of the rural poor. If corruption in the public and private sector can be halved by 2015, Africa would have moved some 60% towards attaining food self-sufficiency.

There is need to double development assistance (especially in the wake of the current global economic meltdown) channeled to fight hunger and poverty through community-based projects that target the real producers who often are the vulnerable groups in African countries. Application of aid should be through CBO’s and traditional institutions that are in tune with the local conditions and realities.

Small commercial farms, and not large-scale commercial farms is the answer to the current food crisis in Africa , at least in the foreseeable future.

Jerome Gefu

Small Farms Debate
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

‘Small farmers can be a driving force in cutting hunger and poverty worldwide’ was a key message to G8 leaders from development specialists at The Future of Small Farms research workshop held in Wye in June 2005. Participants at the workshop, jointly organised by IFPRI, ODI and Imperial College London, concluded that investment in small farm agriculture could help to raise the rural poor out of poverty and catalyse wider economic growth.

However, the challenges small farmers in developing countries face include globalisation – especially the dramatic rise of supermarkets even in poor countries – low world market prices for major agricultural commodities and the expected negative impact of climate change. In Africa, these challenges are compounded by the spread of HIV/AIDS. In addition poor farmers are widely dispersed and have no effective political voice so are usually economically neglected.

But we should not give up on this task according to Dr Peter Hazell, Director of the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and workshop organiser. Possibilities for alternative livelihoods within the non-farm sector do not look optimistic for the next decade or so and there are plenty of good investment opportunities within small farms which are good for both growth and poverty reduction.

The workshop participants agreed that:

  • Public investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and support services is needed to unleash the inherent power of small farmers.
  • In many African countries such investment is contrained by the capacity and quality of state institutions through which it would be channelled. These institutions have to be reformed to increase their accountability to farmers organisations and the private sector.
  • Donors must think carefully how aid can be used to encourage such reform programmes. The danger is that large increases in aid could remove incentives for recipient governments to undertake real reform.
  • The role of the state in providing key support to small farmers needs to be redefined. Structural adjustment programmes have led to state withdrawal from ensuring that small farmers have fair access to high quality seeds, fertilizers, technical advice and credit and marketing services and have left a vacuum which in most poor African countries has not been filled by the private sector. The state should perform a proactive role in collaboration with farmer organisations and private sector to ‘kick-start’ the markets and increase private sector involvement.

Are large-scale commercial farms the answer to Africa’s agricultural prayers?
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

To produce the food necessary to reduce high world food prices and meet the future demands of a growing and more affluent population, large-scale commercial farming needs to be encouraged. Any romantic illusions about small-scale farmers should be set aside. Or so Professor Collier writing recently in Foreign Affairs (November/December 2008) argues.

This is particularly important in Africa where:

“African peasant agriculture has fallen further and further behind the advancing commercial productivity frontier, and based on present trends, the region’s food imports are projected to double over the next quarter century.”

Large-scale commercial farms (LSCF) have the advantages of being technically more advanced, able to reap economies of scale, mobilise funds and invest, and to react to evolving market demand:

“In modern agriculture, technology is fast-evolving, investment is lumpy, the private provision of transportation infrastructure is necessary to counter the lack of its public provision, consumer food fashions are fast-changing and best met by integrated marketing chains, and regulatory standards are rising toward the holy grail of the traceability of produce back to its source.”

Small farmers, on the other hand, have had their day:

“… their mode of production is ill suited to modern agricultural production, in which scale is helpful. …”

“Innovation, especially, is hard to generate through peasant farming.”

If we need a model of what can be done, then Brazil provides one:

“In Brazil, large, technologically sophisticated agricultural companies have demonstrated how successfully food can be mass-produced. To give one remarkable example, the time between harvesting one crop and planting the next — the downtime for land — has been reduced to an astounding 30 minutes.”

Is Professor Collier right? Yes, he is correct to emphasise the need for commercial farming. But no, he is wrong to imagine that this requires doing so on a large-scale. His solution is unnecessary, flies in the face of history, and carries important dangers.

Large-scale farms are unnecessary in Africa

Does Africa need to imitate Brazil? Let’s look at the record of Brazilian farm output from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s. During that time the index of production in Brazil rose by 77%, at an annual average rate of just over 4% a year: a good performance, one of the best twenty in the world. But no less than eight African countries — Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique and Nigeria — did better, while Ethiopia fell short of Brazil by the smallest of margins — see Figure. The African countries concerned all have farm sectors dominated by smallholdings — as applies in the cases of Vietnam and China that also have better records than Brazil. If Africa needs models, then it might be better to look to at its own success stories, or to some Asian experiences, rather than to Brazil.    The history of African farming reveals numerous episodes where there have been remarkable spurts of growth in agricultural output coming from small farms. Coffee farms in Central Kenya in the 1950s and 1960s, cocoa in Ghana in the late C19th, cotton in Francophone Africa in the 1990s, maize in Zimbabwe in the 1980s are just a few examples.

These cases show that when small farmers are given the incentives to produce more and the means to do so, they invest, innovate and respond to opportunity. It is not a lack of large-scale farms that lies behind the disappointments of African agriculture, but a lack of conditions to allow small farmers to fulfil their potential.

Large-scale farming has often failed in Africa

Professor Collier is not the first person to believe that larger-scale farms in Africa would lead to major increases in production. Others have been beguiled by the prospect of rapid transformations. But the record of schemes to introduce large farms has many failures.

Back in the late 1940s Britain saw opportunity in southern Tanzania to grow a crop that would meet the post-war demand for vegetable oil and jump-start agricultural development in a remote colony. Large mechanised farms would be opened in the bush on which groundnuts would be grown. The result was a shambles.

In the 1970s, a US agribusiness took over land in Senegal with the intention of growing vegetables for export. By the end of the 1970s Bud Senegal planned to export 100,000 tonnes of irrigated fruit and vegetables, but the result was failure and bankruptcy.

Ghana promoted large-scale privately-owned rice farms in the Northern Region in the late 1970s with subsidies: they failed once the subsidies were ended. This was not Ghana’s only bad experience of large scale farming: Nkrumah’s ill-starred attempts at large-scale state farms had been earlier failures. Yes, there are successful large-scale farms in Africa, but generally for those relatively few crops where economies of scale exist in production; for example in flowers, horticulture, and sugar cane. When it comes to the main food crops and other export crops, there are few examples of large-scale farms outside of South Africa.

Why is this? The main obstacle to farming on a large scale is the same one that hit Soviet state farms: the management of labour. Small farms have the advantage that family labour is generally self-supervising, prepared to work long and diligently in ways that hired hands are not. When large farms try to minimise the labour problem by mechanising, not only do their costs of production rise, but keeping machinery operating well in rural areas remote from supplies of spares and skilled mechanics is not easy.

Promoting large-scale farming is risky

The obvious danger is that allocating land for commercial farms in large holdings would take land away from the rural poor, or block them off from land that their children may need in the future. Socially unacceptable, any such moves involve high political exposure: expropriation is easy to justify on the basis of historic wrongs. But other less obvious and more insidious risks lurk.

What happens to agricultural policy when a large-scale farm sector is created? With relatively few farmers that can readily be organised, who are rich and politically well-connected as well, large-scale farmers in Africa have a track record of lobbying for special favours. Government is expected to support the large farms with roads, irrigation, and power supplies. Research stations are encouraged to devote their attention to the issues that concern the large farms. The result is that the large farms get these public goods, while any small farms do not. Worse, the large farmers demand subsidies on inputs, guaranteed prices for their outputs, and exclusive rights to grow crops or to market them.

Look at the record of the commercial farming unions of South Africa and Zimbabwe in the recent past. Look today at the large grain farms of Kenya’s Rift Valley. Owned by the political elite, the price paid for maize by the government marketing board is way over the import parity price, conferring substantial rents on the wealthy producers — all in the name of national self-sufficiency.

The record of model Brazil is not so encouraging in this regard either. During the 1980s the commercial farm lobby managed to get the government to offer subsidies on interest rates for farm credit that by 1979–80 were equal to 19–20% of the gross agricultural product, or 2% of GDP. Whilst the majority of Brazil’s farms were of 10 ha or less, only 4% of such smallholders had a bank loan in 1980: 85% of the agricultural portfolio went to the more prosperous South, Southeast and Centre-West regions—with only small amounts going to the needy Nordeste.

Commercial farming, yes; agri-business, yes; but it doesn’t need to be large farms

This is not to deny that large-scale private investors seeking to produce more in Africa should be welcomed. Their capital, their expertise can be put to good use, to the advantage of both the companies and many African (small) farmers as well. But let’s get the economies of scale where they are needed: in the supply chains, in processing, transport and marketing —where lumpy investments and sophisticated know-how count. But let’s leave the farming to the local experts, the family farmers, who have all the incentives to work hard and carefully. This is not romanticism; it is simply a reflection of the empirical record. Small farmers in Africa have repeatedly shown that they can increase production. Let’s give them the chance to do so again.
Steve Wiggins

Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Paul Collier (November/December 2008 issue) sets out three priorities to overcome the world food crisis—moving to large-scale commercial farms to replace peasant or smallholder farming, promoting genetically modified organisms, and reducing distorting subsidies to biofuels in the US.  We think that Professor Collier got two of these right, but missed the boat with his anti-smallholder bias to modernizing agriculture, especially in Africa.

There are three reasons why a focus on smallholder farming is a proven strategy for accelerating growth, reducing poverty, and overcoming hunger.

First, smallholders have proven to be efficient commercial farmers, when given a chance. This is evident from the Asian Green Revolution experience led by smallholders in the 1960s and continuing until today. In India, cereal yields are now 2.6 times what they were in the 1960s, with nearly 90 percent of farmland controlled by farmers with under 10 hectares. And this was not through organic agriculture — Asian smallholder farmers now consume over half of the world’s fertilizer. Failure to realize a Green Revolution in Africa reflects a consistent policy bias against agriculture and smallholders in particular, by both governments and donors. When given the opportunity, smallholders in Africa have proven to be just as responsive in adopting new technologies as their Asian sisters. Witness the adoption of hybrid maize in much of southern Africa, the smallholder dairy revolution of east Africa, and the cocoa, cassava, and cotton successes of West Africa. And witness also the many failed starts with large-scale farming in Africa, dating from colonial times.

Second, accelerating smallholder productivity is win-win in terms of increasing food production and reducing poverty. From 1991 to 2001, China doubled its cereal yields based on smallholders with an average of 0.4 ha of land, while dramatically reducing rural poverty by 63 percentage points and taking a historically unprecedented 400 million rural people out of poverty. Over the same period, the Brazil model of large-scale farming espoused by Professor Collier nearly matched the Chinese record of productivity growth, but the number of rural poor actually increased.

Finally, Professor Collier equates the global food crisis and the hunger of some 900 million people with food supply alone. Yet increasing food supply is only one side of the solution—generating incomes for the poor to access food is equally if not more important. We should not forget that 75% of the world’s poor are rural, and that they mainly depend on agriculture and related activities for their livelihoods. Since the majority of these rural poor are net buyers of food, raising the productivity of the land they control so they can better feed themselves is essential to gain access to food.

While we recognize that large-scale agriculture has a place in a some land abundant areas of Africa if it is driven by markets rather than subsidies, and the rights of current land users are adequately protected, it would be a huge mistake to forsake the proven power of smallholders to jump start growth, reduce poverty, and solve the hunger crisis in Africa and beyond. Promoting smallholder farming is not “romantic populism”, but sound economic and social policy.

Derek Byerlee and Alain de Janvry, Co-Directors of the World Development Report 2008, Agriculture for Development,

Thomas Lines
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

It is rather unfortunate that the terms of debate should be framed by a man like Paul Collier.  From his dreaming spire in Oxford, he looks down on the world through the wrong end of a telescope.  Like many unimaginative economists, he starts with the market – and the world market to boot.  Yet he understands neither agriculture nor world markets.  And he does his case no good by patronising his opposition as ‘populist’, ‘ideological’, ‘romantic’ and even ‘romantic populism’.

One such term is the ‘war on science’.  Has he not seen the IAAKSTD report of 2008, in which eminent scientists drew radically different conclusions from his?  At times he shows an awareness of the problems implied by his approach, but then rapidly shifts away from them.  Two examples: ‘Some have criticized the Brazilian model for displacing peoples and destroying rain forest’ and ‘the political coalition against GM foods has only expanded.’  Indeed so, since members of that coalition understand what Collier does not: we have played around with nature for long enough.

He writes that in large-scale commercial agriculture, ‘if output prices rise by more than input prices, production will be expanded.’  But as he also half-concedes, this has not happened.  On the contrary, according to my calculations oil and fertiliser input prices have risen far more than crop prices – so the food crisis is above all a crisis of industrial agriculture.  Between the commodities boom of the late 1970s and the one just ended, prices for maize and rice, deflated by those of developing countries’ manufactured imports, actually declined by 25 and 45 per cent respectively on a three-year moving average.  Meanwhile real oil prices rose by 59 per cent and phosphates by 46 per cent.

Collier asserts that, ‘Where poor farmers are integrated into global markets, they are likely to benefit.’  Wrong again: over the same period, the largest price falls were in crops produced by poor farmers for globally integrated markets.  Real coffee prices fell by 63 per cent, cocoa by 65 per cent and cotton, 57 per cent.

Collier shows no understanding of how commodity markets work.  He writes, ‘global food prices must be brought down’; well, now they have been, as usually happens rapidly after price spikes, especially one so dramatic as this.  But from China to Nigeria to France, the sons and daughters of farmers are leaving the land in droves since it no longer provides a decent livelihood.  With prices low, for how long will big investors want to replace them?

We should start our analysis not with the market but the problems that need to be addressed: poverty and hunger.  First determine who and where poor and hungry people are, then why they are so and how their lives can be improved.  That is what I did in my book, Making Poverty: A History.  This is not romantic or populist but practical good sense.  And it did not lead me to airily dismiss, like Collier, the notion that ‘Peasants, like pandas, are to be preserved.’  The greatest numbers of poor and hungry people are peasants: smallholders and rural landless.  What would the good professor do?  Shoot them?  Expropriate them and hand their land and livestock to big units, like Stalin in 1930?  Stalin’s collectivisation programme was based on much the same faulty reasoning as Collier’s.

He ignores the fact that today’s poorest countries are generally small as well as remote, agrarian and commodity-dependent.  That is why they fare badly under globalisation. The immediate need is not closer integration in world markets but shelter from those markets’  damaging influence.  This applies above all in Africa: build links between African countries rather than between them and the outside world, to enable food surpluses in one area to meet shortages in others.  Surplus farmers will then benefit from a good harvest and not see it frittered away in collapsing prices.  In the long run that will provide the basis of all development, which is domestic accumulation, not external investment.

Collier offers modern Brazil and industrialising England as models.  More relevant perhaps is Denmark, another small country which prospered on the back of small-scale agriculture, exporting food to its neighbours.  That helped it to create an unusually harmonious society – unlike today’s Brazil or 19th-century England.

Thomas Lines
Freelance Consultant and Author of Making Poverty: A History (Zed Books, 2008)

Stephen (Esteban) Bartlett
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

A very important topic and distinction.  It is precisely the scale of production and the respective models that accompany either small or large farms, that determines the social and economic character of agriculture, its ecological sustainability (ie how it maintains soil fertility), and its usefulness as a shield against hunger for the many.

Very simply put, small farms are necessary in order to end hunger.  80% of hungry people worldwide are rural people or rural migrants whose land holdings or economic or social infrastructure are insufficient to produce an income that can feed, clothe and educate their families.  This is a result of land concentration into fewer hands, ie larger farms.

The green revolution may have increased yields in certain grain crops for those able to take advantage, that is, those with capital to spend on seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  But social inequalities widened, and ecological limits came to bear, ie the law of diminishing returns came to bear on increasing uses of pesticides as resistances built up, soil lost its natural fertility (due to lack of organic material being returned), etc… Lands became concentrated into fewer hands due to the industrial model.

Studies have shown that, the world over, on average the smaller the farms are, the more productive they are in overall calories per acre.  We are not talking about the yields of large scale monocultures, but of a diversity of crops and animals raised in given areas.  ( Peter Rosset)

Regarding GMO seeds, it is now widely known that their main function is to make large scale monocultures easier (more convenient) to produce, through the use of herbicides sprayed over the crop, that the plant can withstand.  Overall yields of GMOs have been shown to be below those of the best hybrid or even open-pollinated varieties of the major grains and oilseeds.  Conventionally grown hybrid grain crops continue to out-produce GMO crops.

Finally, the argument that large farms of “efficient” monocultures (“efficient only in the sense of how much food each farmer can produce, but not how much can be produced sustainably, or even economically, on a given piece of land) are needed in order to combat hunger is completely false.  If rural peoples are to feed themselves, farms necessarily need to be smaller, so that living wage employment is more widely distributed and small-scale farmers have the means to grow their own foods, plus surpluses to sell.  It is the lack of support on the part of governments and the international financial institutions that imposed harmful conditionalities for decades now (including the de-funding of grain reserves!) for small-scale farming that has marginalized that sector, not any inherent inefficiency in that way of life or that scale of production.

Once small farmers organize themselves into cooperatives, the small scale of their individual farm holdings becomes irrelevant.  Their closer attention to the soil, their use of diverse plantings, their use of animal manures and other green manures, and their attention to micro climate through maintenance of wood lots, etc..for the domestic products forests supply, including medicines, all make small farms more effective in addressing economic impoverishment, in slowing or reversing the rural exodus to the cities, and in providing the community necessary to maintain a resilient rural culture.

It is likely that if you argue otherwise, your bread might very well be buttered in some way by the status quo of corporate, industrial-scale production, or some academic institution that thrives off the spouting of cleverly worded abstractions in the interest of capturing “research”
funding.  The debate over small versus large farms is really a debate about corporate control and profit-taking by producers of industrial inputs versus the survival of independent small-holders, the people that Thomas Jefferson swore were the bedrock of democracy, without whom democratic process would dry up and wither on the vine…

Stephen (Esteban) Bartlett, Agricultural Missions, Inc (AMI)

Wolfgang Bayer
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

One thing that is missing in the contributions I saw thus far, are definitions of large farms or small farms. 25 years ago I was in Australia and found interesting statistics for Australian conditions of course. To gain an income from farming equal to average national income a beef farmer in the North needed 100 km² of land or 1000 head of beef cattle. A sugar cane farmer needed 50 ha and a farmer growing green pepper 1 ha . Things have surely changed in the mean time and Africa is not Australia, yet looking at income potential instead of at size might be a useful way of looking at farming.

Small farms (and smallholding) do have a very important role as safety net in times of crisis – and the size can range from little more than an allotment garden to a few hectares. This safety function in times of crisis was in the past very important in Europe e.g. during and after WW II, and was also important in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the communism (and the economy). And smallholder farming received very little research and development support, because the farm models that research worked for was not a small farm. For outsiders it is tedious to try to understand small holder farming, and it is also tedious to re-orient research (which holds far fewer benefits for agro-industrial  companies than do large farms) to small holder farming. Definitely smallholder farms are not simply large farms at a scale of 1:100 or so,  and therefore large farms ma not be able to provide many services for small holders. We also should look a small holder farms from another angle: in many African countries 60 or more %of the population still rely to a larger or smaller degree on agriculture for their livelihood. Definitely there is nothing romantic about it – smallholder farming can be very hard work, indeed. However, at present it is needed also for social security. What is needed as agricultural revolution in Africa is research and development that is pro smallholders that also takes into account the dynamics of smallholder farming, and this also has to take in institutional and regulatory systems, and at times even concepts such as varieties in plants and breeds in animals, because they may mean something different in smallholder agriculture than for large, so-called commercial farms.

Wolfgang Bayer, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation

Colin Poulton
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Perhaps predictably, I find it hard to disagree with Steve’s arguments. There is a pro-smallholder and pro-science – even pro-GM! – position, drawing on a strong empirical record, that Paul completely misses in his attempt to slay the giants of romanticism. I will, therefore, confine myself to two main points:

The first augments Steve’s points about the comparative advantage of smallholder vs large-scale commercial agriculture. In low income economies, replacing labour with capital is often not efficient. This is true for many agricultural production tasks. Moreover, smallholder family labour is often better motivated and hence more efficient than the hired labour that large-scale farms have to rely on. In general, therefore, there are few economies of scale in agricultural production in Africa, although there may be in processing and marketing. That said, there are supply chains – most notably, export horticulture – where significant capital investments at farm level are unavoidable.

There are also economies of scale in traceability and other aspects of quality assurance. In such supply chains, the advantages of large farm organisation may outweigh the labour benefits of smallholder production. In a recent review of commercial agriculture in Africa for the World Bank (, we found that large-scale production had outperformed smallholder systems in export horticulture, sugar and flue-cured tobacco, but that smallholder production systems had outperformed large-scale in cotton and cashew, with strong performance under both forms in tea. The current debate has been prompted by the high food prices observed in 2008. Notably, food crop production in Africa remains dominated by smallholders.

The high costs of accessing and defending large landholdings in much of Africa may contribute to this. However, in a low income economy there are no obvious scale advantages in maize production and poor consumers are a long way from demanding the traceability and food safety assurance that could tip the balance in favour of large producers. Tellingly, where large farms do exist, they often choose to produce higher value crops than maize and other staples. Paul argues that “allowing commercial organizations to replace peasant agriculture gradually would raise global food supply in the medium term”. However, as Prabhu Pingali and others have shown for East Asia, market forces will tend to produce farm consolidation only when real wages in an economy rise well above levels seen in most of Africa today. When this happens, replacing labour with capital will make increasing sense and increasingly large plots will be necessary to generate an income for the owner comparable to that which could be obtained in an (attainable) off-farm job.

My second point augments one of Paul’s points. We can point to plenty of evidence showing that, where smallholders are supported through public or private delivery of support services (accessible input supply, seasonal finance, technical advice etc), they can compete strongly with large-scale farms in low income economies. However, large-scale farms do possess an important advantage: they can access such support services themselves (e.g. direct contact with commercial banks), whereas smallholders are heavily dependent on services being brought close to their farmgate. As Steve notes (not altogether approvingly), large-scale farms can even lobby for public infrastructure provision, something that smallholders have rarely been able to do.

The case for large-scale farms, therefore, looks stronger where states completely fail to provide or to encourage support services to smallholder producers. Without such service provision, smallholders are indeed more likely to be trapped in chronic poverty than to be drivers of agricultural growth. In recent years there have been encouraging commitments from African governments to increase their investment in the agricultural sectors of their countries. This is critical if smallholder production is to supply the ever-rising demand for food on the continent.

Colin Poulton, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

Michael Loevinsohn
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I’d like to challenge one of Prof. Collier’s key points: small farmers are failing to keep up with the pace of change. “Innovation is hard to generate through peasant farming”, he writes. “Their mode of production is ill-suited to modern agricultural production in which scale is helpful”.  On the contrary, small farmers have shown time and again a capacity to rapidly evolve technologies and systems; in this their greater number and their closer interactions with their land, crops, animals and each other, relative to large farmers, are key advantages. This extends to achieving scale economies – where these are attractive – through cooperation. In a context of rapid change, small farmers’ capacity to evolve is critical. However, it is far more often ignored or suppressed than supported and fed.

An illuminating case comes from the highlands of southern Rwanda, one of the most densely populated parts of the most densely populated country in Africa.
Soon after arriving in the late 1980’s, I took up an initiative to advance sustainable intensification of highland valley bottoms thru farmer-led experimentation. Farmer groups in 3 valleys tried out and modified technical options they or we suggested; they bore all risks, we provided initial seed and advice. Within 2 seasons the valleys were transformed (photos). Rice, previously only grown 200 m lower, spread rapidly. Farmers identified varieties that tolerated cold and developed cropping patterns adapted to their economic orientation and the hydrology of their valleys. By the second season, all the groups had constructed sandbag-reinforced diversion dams and peripheral irrigation canals. Farmers who had never before seen a need to farm cooperatively were now electing coordinators to organize tasks that benefited all, like irrigation maintenance, and, when necessary, to enforce penalties. Appropriate scales of cooperation were quickly found for different tasks: larger for maintaining canals, smaller for managing a seedbed, still smaller for scaring off birds. “Traveling seminars” in which the groups showed and explained what they were trying were crucial for the evolution of these lumpy options. How to maintain functional diversity was a constant topic of conversation.  Rice was proving very productive (appreciated at home and with a ready market) but its spread threatened other elements.  Sweet potato especially: growing it in the valley provided cuttings for the hillsides and made year-round cultivation possible – an enormous boost to food security. One solution was to grow rice in paddies then rebuild raised beds for sweet potato, beans and e.g. out-of-season maize for the market: tremendously labour-demanding but evidently feasible for farmers with a few hundred sq m of land. Innovation was driven by necessity, which was hardly in short supply. But the context was less than supportive: markets functioned poorly, extension was demeaning and the state apparatus hostile to any autonomous initiative. Discussion in policy circles favoured scale and specialization – fewer people, growing one or a few crops, either in the valleys or on the hills. This much of the story was recounted in Agricultural Systems (1994, attached). I left a year before the genocide broke out in 1994. I visited in 1996: despite upheaval and more than 4 years without support of any kind, the groups had survived and rice cultivation had spread up the valleys.  It was more difficult to make out what had happened to other innovations. A few months ago, a colleague visited the area. The groups are all still active, 20 years on, and he found rice dominant over many kilometres of valley (photo).  It’s unclear to what extent farmers have been supported in this by public or private sector institutions (I know some are active in the area) and whether farmer innovation is being recognized. I’d love to find out more. A final thought. New cultivation techniques for familiar crops may prove an important production frontier, particularly as climate change accelerates. The System of Rice Intensification and related approaches are notable examples. The wheel is still very much in spin but evidence suggests a potential for significant gains in production and water use efficiency along with an inescapable need for local innovation and adaptation around the basic principles. Supporting the innovative capacity the Rwandan groups demonstrated would seem essential if that potential is to be captured.  

Michael Loevinsohn, Applied Ecology Associates

Peter Rosset
January 25, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I am surprised to find this debate starting all over again, and would like to ask readers to look over the following essays I wrote during an earlier iteration of these debates.  In them I challenge the conventional wisdom that small farms are backward and unproductive.

Using evidence from Southern and Northern countries I demonstrate that small farms are “multi-functional” – more productive, more efficient, and contribute more to economic development than large farms. Small farmers can also make better stewards of natural resources, conserving biodiversity and safe-guarding the future sustainability of agricultural production.

Peter Rosset, Associate, Global Alternatives

Andrew Catley
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

In response to Stephen Sandford’s paper, I find the analysis rather simplistic and in terms of the quantitative analysis and use of the TLU/AAME ratio, probably invalid. It’s simplistic because it fails to assess the overarching political contexts affecting pastoralism and in particular, the importance of conflict and violence.

While Stephen may argue that questionnaire surveys indicate that pastoralists don’t prioritize conflict as a problem (see comments to the ongoing FAO conference), questionnaire surveys not tend to be used in war zones or areas of high insecurity. I don’t see many researchers with clipboards in southern Somalia, the Ogaden, Darfur or Karamoja at the moment. The keys issues are peace, protection and the political representation of pastoralists. Regarding the use of TLU/AAME ratio, few countries have accurate data on human and livestock populations in pastoral areas. Wearing my epidemiologist’s hat, I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from Stephen’s calculations – the phrase ‘rubbish in – rubbish out’ springs to mind.

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

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

Small Farms Debate
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Small farmers can be a driving force in cutting hunger and poverty worldwide’ was a key message to G8 leaders from development specialists at The Future of Small Farms research workshop held in Wye in June 2005.

Participants at the workshop, jointly organised by IFPRI, ODI and Imperial College London, concluded that investment in small farm agriculture could help to raise the rural poor out of poverty and catalyse wider economic growth.

However, the challenges small farmers in developing countries face include globalisation – especially the dramatic rise of supermarkets even in poor countries – low world market prices for major agricultural commodities and the expected negative impact of climate change. In Africa, these challenges are compounded by the spread of HIV/AIDS. In addition poor farmers are widely dispersed and have no effective political voice so are usually economically neglected.

But we should not give up on this task according to Dr Peter Hazell, Director of the Development Strategy and Governance Division of IFPRI and workshop organiser. Possibilities for alternative livelihoods within the non-farm sector do not look optimistic for the next decade or so and there are plenty of good investment opportunities within small farms which are good for both growth and poverty reduction.

The workshop participants agreed that:

  • Public investment in rural infrastructure, agricultural research and support services is needed to unleash the inherent power of small farmers.
  • In many African countries such investment is contrained by the capacity and quality of state institutions through which it would be channelled. These institutions have to be reformed to increase their accountability to farmers organisations and the private sector.
  • Donors must think carefully how aid can be used to encourage such reform programmes. The danger is that large increases in aid could remove incentives for recipient governments to undertake real reform.
  • The role of the state in providing key support to small farmers needs to be redefined. Structural adjustment programmes have led to state withdrawal from ensuring that small farmers have fair access to high quality seeds, fertilizers, technical advice and credit and marketing services and have left a vacuum which in most poor African countries has not been filled by the private sector. The state should perform a proactive role in collaboration with farmer organisations and private sector to ‘kick-start’ the markets and increase private sector involvement.

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

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.

Herment A. Mrema
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

To me it will be a waste of time to debate on an obvious issue.  Small scale farming in Africa is life, is culture, is political, is survival and is livelihood. Small scale farming in Africa has performed well and what we need to do more, is to make these small holder farms more productive and profitable. To do that we need to support our farmers to embrace the concept of farming is business, which means assuming higher affordable risks and the higher the risk assumed the higher the returns.

In order to embark on commercial agriculture they need volumes and good quality. These farmers can achieve both if they are organized into farmer groups, embrace uniform best agricultural practices (into large farms) and they add as much value to their produce before they sell and move from marketing commodities into marketing complex products. Marketing complex products will avoid price fluctuations associated with selling commodities due to vagaries of demand and supply. This will be achieved through value addition up the chain while retaining ownership by the small scale farmer and it will be possible if these farmers are facilitated to access business facilitation tools such as skills, know how, appropriate technologies, inputs, social and working capital (credit), financial services, market and price information and enabling environment built on values of honesty, integrity, trust, integrated, holistics and comprehensive approaches.  These farmers should be facilitated to access competitive markets for their products where the farmers are able to negotiate for prices (which cover all cost of production, processing, marketing including reasonable profits) instead of being price takers and the farmers should be paid/ or pay (for services received) on performance. To avoid the problems which lead to to the failure of cooperatives, sales proceeds should be channelled directly to farmers individual accounts as we have in a place a technology suitable to manage these kind of transactions. Farmer groups will also be facilitated to establish their own thrift and credit schemes (not SACCOS) which will be used mainly to finance their basic needs such as need for salt, sugar, paraffin, soap, etc. and later evolve into village banks. Managers, and service providers will be required to invest in the process of service provision and be paid after the transaction is completed and based on the value of service provided as it contribute to the generation of incomes.

This means embracing Product and Service Supply Value chains approaches being driven by sense of Farmer ownership as the driver of the chains. The cooperation, alliances, linkages, partnership of stakeholders within the chains will influence the market, price and demand which may cause a paradigm shift.  The consumer demand for quality, food safety that could be traced to the source of origin and willingness to pay a premium price for the product is one of the forces which makes this initiative possible.  Furthermore the technological explosion “the fall of the walls and the rise of windows” has provided affordable technologies and information which can make this initiative possible.

The corporate world has had its gains for too long, have exploited the small holders farmers for too long and its time for “CHANGE”.  Change that we believe in it and sure we can.

We need to capitalize the small scale farmers household with only $ 50 per month as a social capital in terms of a revolving loan and they will be able to access their basic needs which make them vulnerable to middlemen and traders who took away the little they sell at a price set by the middlemen. These farmers are forced to sell without adding value which does not justify them to bargain for a better price. Middle men who play significant roles in all businesses are important and they will be empowered to play different roles and functions such as providing goods and services now being demanded by farmers as their purchasing power is enhanced due to earnings from selling value added products in  competitive markets.

We have simple solutions for these problems, the challenge is hidden agenda because of greedy, selfishness, lack of commitment, determination, lack of desire to develop as “we” instead  we are only thinking for ourselves while we know very well that time has come that no single individual, family, household, village or nation can survive on their own.  We need each other to face the challenges of the world so that we can prosper together equitably according to individual contribution to the process. .

More information on success stories is available on request.

Herment A. Mrema, Executive Director, Africa Rural Development Support Initiative (ARUDESI)

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

Emmy Simmons
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Maybe declining soil fertility is a symptom rather than a disease.

Many African governments and donors are trying to treat the symptom without analyzing the causes of the disease: providing technology packages, tinkering with subsidy options, seeing what the private sector can do, and looking for innovative farmers who have figured out how to manage the symptoms.

The Future Agricultures paper is very helpful in reviewing all of these efforts — but it does not get down to highlighting some of the causes of the disease:
— land tenure policies that reduce farmers’ incentives to invest in maintaining land quality;
— population growth rates that outstrip productivity growth rates;
— commodity markets that make investing in soil maintenance uneconomic;
— transport systems that are so inefficient that fertilizer costs are outrageous when compared to the value of output produced;
— inconsistent government policy — just when one course of treatment is beginning to show promise, the diagnosis is changed and a new antibiotic is ordered; and
— lack of technical knowledge/analytical capacity on the part of many producers.

More attention to causal factors would set off a whole new and more policy-oriented discussion that might actually make a difference over the next 20 years.  Otherwise I fear we will be supplying band-aids here, iodine there, vitamins tomorrow, and antibiotics the next day.  Let’s make it worthwhile for farmers to invest in the quality of their soil (tenure, remunerative markets for products), give them the training/information they need to adapt generic recommendations (whether through demonstrations, farmer field schools, or whatever), and cut the costs as much as possible by investing in efficient importing/transport/competitive sales systems.

Emmy Simmons, Board Member
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)

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.

Louis Pautrizel
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

During the year 2008, GRET worked with several NGOs (on the behalf of Coordination SUD) on a position paper on these issues.

This paper underlines the benefits of family farms for employment, poverty reduction, hunger reduction, environment protection and rural development. It often refers to the efficiency of small farms and family labour while large agribusiness tend to develop at the expense of the population.

The same working group is now concluding a new position paper analyzing policies that promote family farms.

[read: In Defence of Family Famrms.pdf].

[lire: Défendre les agricultures familiales: lesquelles, pourquoi?.pdf]

Louis Pautrizel,

Hakan Jonsson
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Your think piece on “Policy frameworks for increasing soil fertility in Africa: debating the alternatives” is really interesting.

Certainly, in many situations external input of plant nutrients is needed to increase the yields and the soil fertility and this is well demonstrated by your list of “models”, where all, except the last one, explicitly aims at increasing the productivity through the increased use of chemical fertilizers.

There is however on large and free supply of plant nutrients available even to the most poor and which you do not mention, namely the plant nutrients in the human excreta. Due to the mass balance over the adult human body, the excreta contain all the macro nutrients and the micro nutrients in essentially the same proportions as supplied by the food (even though small amounts are lost with hair, nails, sweat, etc.). Calculations by Arno Rosemarin and Ian Caldwell in the SEI Report “Sustainable Pathways to Attain the Millennium Development Goals: Assessing the Key Role of Water, Energy and Sanitation” (Figure 4-21, relevant chapters attached) show that in the Sub-Saharan region the amounts nitrogen and phosphorus in the human excreta are of the same order as that used in 2002 in the form of chemical fertilizers. Yet, this option for providing locally available plant nutrients is not mentioned in your document.

As we see it, the excreta plant nutrients have several advantages:

  • Available also to the most poor, at least in small amounts – from the own family
  • No import and thus no impact on the trade balance
  • Two complete and complementing fertilizers, urine and treated faeces (see the attached “Guidelines on use of urine and faeces in crop production”)

*Urine has the largest flows of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and sulphur, and after degradation of the urea nitrogen, essentially of of these nutrients are in the ionic form, i.e. they are easily available. The hygiene risk of non-contaminated urine is low.

*While the flow of macro nutrients in faeces is smaller, its flows of many micro nutrients are larger and it also provides valuable organic matter. However, the pathogen risk associated with faeces is large and they must always be handled, treated and reused in such a way that this reuse chain is considered safe, i.e. its risks are considered acceptable.

  • The complementing types of the excreta fertilisers means that the fertilizing schemes can be optimized, e.g. using the urine mainly on nitrogen demanding crops i.e. maize and the faeces on e.g. legumes.
  • A further advantage is that the plant nutrient factories consists of toilets, i.e. programs to increase the excreta plant nutrient availability to crop production simultaneously  improves the sanitation situation and  decreases the pollution and degradation of the environment (MDG no 7).

Sanitation systems aimed at reuse of the excreta plant nutrients are often called ecological sanitation (ecosan), but a very good term for this used by FAO and IFAD is productive sanitation.

We believe in great synergies, especially for small holder farmers in dry regions, when productive sanitation (better plant nutrient supply) is combined with rain water harvesting and water conserving practices and sustainable agricultural practices (improving the soil organics) and are organizing a seminar (attached) August 17th on this “triple green revolution” approach at the World Water Week in Stockholm. Together with IFAD and CREPA, which is experienced in ecological sanitation in West Africa, we are also staring a project on this triple green revolution approach.

Håkan Jönsson,
Eco-Agriculture and Sanitation System Technology Expert
Stockholm Environment Institute

Shirley Tarawali
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

A few thoughts on potential livestock dimensions of the soil fertility policy debate.  These are not intended to be comprehensive in any way, but to simply raise the issue that in taking an equitable broad based approach to the topic, including consideration of a livestock dimension, whilst in no way a panacea, could be one useful aspect.

Livestock interact with soil in many ways, all of which have the potential to impact soil fertility:

  1. through consumption of material (forage, range, crop residues, in some cases crop grains) that removes these nutrients, vegetation or organic matter from the soil
  2. through the manure and urine that may contribute nutrients, and for the former, organic matter to the soil  – in some instances providing a “redistribution” function for nutrients from rangeland to cropland, or (eg where feed is imported) on a wider scale
  3. through providing soil tillage that affects the soil physical structure and impacts crop (and forage) production
  4. through trampling soil that affects soil structure – such as water holding properties

In much of the developing world, especially for the poorest, inputs to soil fertility from livestock are highly valued.  Many farmers keep livestock for manure even before the milk or meat they may produce.  In the majority of cases however the nutrient inputs from livestock manure are probably only about 10% of those needed to support crop production.  Many studies have shown that combining organic and inorganic inputs gives the best returns on both and helps to maintain soil structure/in a healthy condition.

Policies related to soil fertility directly can be influenced by and have an influence on livestock

  1. policies that make fertilizer easily and cheaply available if promoted in isolation, could mean farmers do not use manure – this would both jeopardize long term soil health (because of a reduction on soil organic matter) and potentially present a problem of manure use/disposal
  2. such policies could also favour the expansion of crop production which may impinge upon livestock grazing and trekking routes leading to conflicts as well as overuse of a restricted land area by livestock

Policies related to livestock production can influence soil fertility

  1. policies that influence the location of intensive livestock production can affect soil fertility.  If policies encourage location of intensive livestock production in localities where crops are produced, along with appropriate manure management guidelines, there can be some win-win opportunities.  If on the other hand, policies favour the separation of livestock production from the land where crops are grown, the soil suffers and the environment suffers
  2. policies that impact livestock movement may impact soil fertility – influencing where livestock deposit manure, or where the soil is adversely affected by over grazing/trampling or vegetation changes because of restricted livestock movement
  3. conversely policies that influence the ability of livestock keepers to be paid for environmental management can positively impact on the soil condition

Policies influencing land use and management impact both livestock and soil fertility

  1. incentives to manage soil in a sustainable way are likely to be higher if there is secure land tenure
  2. pricing of land as an input into livestock and crop production can influence the management of soil
  3. policies influencing the use of conservation agriculture may impact livestock – access to equipment; cover crops (some of which may also be forages); use of crop residues

Shirley Tarawali, Theme Director
International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI)

Jeremy Swift
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

Stephen does us a wonderful service by putting arguments such as this cogently and forcefully. The TMP thesis is not wrong, and the conclusions it suggests are good pointers for new policies. But Stephen seems to be arguing that a fundamental tipping point has been reached. The evidence he arrays does not convince me.

Variability. Pastoralism is a livelihood system designed to cope with a high degree of variability. By compressing a long historical process characterised by variability, and appearing to make it linear, Stephan seems to be arguing that pastoralists face a historically defining moment (‘The End of Pastoralism’); “without a substantial change in attitudes and approach…there will be no recovery” p. 2). I see little evidence for that. At worst, the present crises, like previous ones, will leave a deeply divided pastoral system running well below its potential. Stephen is right to look for the way out of this, but it’s a manageable problem, not the crisis to end all crises.

Numbers: The argument is buttressed by lots of numbers which give it a fictitious precision. It is hard to have much confidence in most of them. Also, there are some complex, multi-factorial processes involved, from which it is difficult to be clear about outcomes. Examples (all pages numbered from emailed version):

p. 2, leg 1 of the argument: “pastoral human population is growing at 2.5% per year, net of emigration.” I know of no work which establishes such a conclusion with any confidence. Above all, the amount of immigration/emigration is highly variable depending on ecological and economic conditions. Population net of in/out migration diminishes substantially in a series of dry years, and expands again in wet years, although perhaps not to the same level as before. I think this is an important research topic, and some good policy conclusions might flow from it: eg help those who have been forced out of pastoralism by a particular crisis (and not just everybody) to adopt diverse livelihoods, or restock only those with a demonstrated commitment to pastoralism.

p. 3 leg 2 of argument. “pure pastoralists need 5-6 cattle units/person…” same reservation.

p. 3, leg 3 of argument. “limited by the amount of livestock feed available” Correct, but ‘livestock feed’ become ‘rangelands’ in the following sentence, and pasture in subsequent paras, which is not correct. Increased fodder production substitutes for pasture, a process ending in zero grazing systems.

p. 3, leg 6 “no known technologies for significantly increasing primary range” Yes, but there are known ways of increasing feed supplements, and altering the seasonal distribution of available natural feed (hay making, seasonal standing hay reserves). Given that the constraint is largely a seasonal, not an annual one, these could make a significant difference.

p.3, leg 8. ‘patches of rainfed cultivation have greater potential in agriculture than in pastoralism.’ Climate change may make such areas unfit for agriculture but still usable by pastoralists. So global warming may work in favour of pastoralists in this respect. (The implications of global warming for pastoralists is an important study, since they might be net gainers in Africa and central Asia. Is anyone doing it?)

p. 3, leg 9. market prospects: livestock exports from GHA to the Gulf are impaired at the moment by a single poorly justified quarantine restriction. If this can be lifted, export prospects are good. Further, rapid urbanisation coupled with the strong positive income elasticity of demand for livestock products suggests a likely rapid rise in demand for livestock products within Africa (the IFPRI argument).

p. 4, para 5. Here as elsewhere pastoralism is treated as the only activity. Households with 5-6 cattle per person would almost certainly get a significant part of their income from diversified economic activities. Ie the criterion of 80% of cash income from sale of livestock is probably an exaggeration.

p.4 last para. I am not sure how good the evidence is that improving pastoral terms o trade by converting livestock to cereals “has run its course”.

p. 5, Implications …
These are sensible conclusions. A sentence on p. 6 para 2, encapsulates the essential advice for donors, with which few would disagree. “what is afflicting pastoral GHA is not just a series of weather-induced independent crises requiring occasional emergency relief but a continuing structural (fundamental imbalance) problem.”
These conclusions have been argued by several observers (eg the UNDP 2003 ‘Pastoralism and Mobility in the Drylands’ paper, the conclusions of which were similar to Stephen’s and were widely accepted within the pastoral development community.) But the sensible conclusions of Stephen’s note are undermined by the exaggeratedly precise and pessimistic tone of the main section of the note, which risks being taken by those hostile to pastoralism to mean that pastoralism has no future. Either way we should be grateful to Stephen for putting this argument so provocatively.

Jeremy Swift
Independent Consultant, Wales

Ruchi Tripathi
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

Small and large farms: definitions, trends and patterns – I’d like to make a contribution under this section of the debate and add another dimension to the debate.

Let me confess that I am on the side of Steve Wiggins in this debate – due to a number of well known reasons that I wont repeat, and am glad that last time round when this debate was being played out during consultations for DFID’s agriculture policy 2005, Michael Lipton won the argument – that support to smallholder farmers is vital for poverty and hunger eradication. 

I want to draw attention to a group of farmers who fall within the category of smallholder farmers but would most likely be missed out in this debate.  I am referring to half of the world’s hungry – marginal farming families – who Concern defines as ‘Farming yet hungry’.  These groups of farmers are often excluded because they fall between the categories of productive farmers and those living in rural areas facing absolute poverty.

The current food crisis has once again focused attention on food production, revived debates around re-investing in agricultural development and research.  One of the key questions is what and who should be focus of this renewed interest in agriculture be.
Concern strongly believes that if we are to address poverty, hunger and malnutrition we must focus on the largest group of hungry people in the world – marginal farming families.  Agricultural production will remain a key livelihoods activity for this group; they will also need to be supported through social protection, in addition to investments in provision of basic services and rural infrastructure.  By strengthening the livelihoods options and capacity of this ‘farming yet hungry’ group, we will be giving them the options to decide about their future.  There is a strong risk however, that in this debate between small Vs big, we forget to focus on this potentially viable group of farmers who need to be specifically targeted. 

For further information see literature research commissioned by Concern,

Ruchi Tripathi, Head of UK Policy and Campaigns,
Concern Worldwide (UK)

Louise Shaxson
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

1.  I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, because you don’t set out anywhere what you really mean by ‘a policy framework’.  Is it a framework for analysing policy, or for developing policy?  The two are completely different: the former may have relevance from a research point of view, making it possible to test various solutions against a perceived framing of the problem.  However I wonder whether policy makers will really be able to engage with the answers. I presume that you hope to engage them with the results of the dialogue but this also isn’t very clear as I don’t know which policy makers you are aiming for: in DFID, WB, politicians, or mid level civil servants in Malawi?

2.  I think it’s crucial that your analysis of the problem sets out what the current policy goals are in relation to soil use/productivity etc.  If, as a policymaker, I am charged with delivering a set of goals, then having someone present evidence in a completely different framing is likely to make my life more, rather than less complicated. If I have to struggle to find the relevance of what is being said, I’ll be more likely to misuse the evidence.  (Not intentionally – but I’ll probably cherry pick the bits that I understand, not have time to work through the challenging parts, and come to rely on (e.g.) chapter 3 as a bit of a ‘crutch’ because it’s well written and seems to make sense.)

3.  So I really think you need to consider the questions the presumed audience will be asking: and policy makers will be asking them in terms of the policy goals that they are working towards.  Given that these change over time, often appear to conflict with one another, and are interpreted differently by different stakeholders, you can’t rely on a single set of answers, no matter how nuanced they are.  The answers must be conditional on the policy goals.

4.  Thus, the ‘design principles’ for effective policy cannot be debated in the abstract: they must relate to specified policy goals and the outcomes that are sought.  So if the specific policy goal we are working on is X and some related policy goals are Y and Z, and if the overarching policy goal for that Department is Q, then the evidence suggests that….  This makes it difficult to think about any of the issues raised in your bullet pointed section because I don’t know what policy goals we are dealing with.

5.  So I’d prefer to see your questions reframed somewhat, as in the italics below [your original questions in square brackets]…

  • Given that the national policy goal is X and the goal for that particular region is Y, how can we devise a national strategy which takes account of regional diversity?  [How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?]
  • Given that the policy goal is to increase agricultural incomes for the poorest quartile, by X% over the next Y years, and that we have evidence that an integrated soil fertility management approach is most appropriate, is inorganic fertiliser the most effective entry point?  [Is inorganic fertilizer the best initial ‘entry point’ for an integrated soil fertility management approach? If so, what should a programme look like, bearing in mind past failures? If not, what should be done first?]  NB, if the policy goal is about improving crop productivity across the board, then the answer to the question would be completely different.
  • Given the policy goal of reducing dependence on input subsidies by X% over Y years…[How can efficient use of fertilizer use be ensured, avoiding the danger of benefits being captured more by fertilizer manufacturers and traders than small scale farmers?] If it’s the Treasury who ‘own’ this goal rather than the Dept of Agriculture, then you’ll have some interesting discussions here. How might this goal conflict with a Dept of Ag goal on increasing crop productivity?  What if there’s also a Dept of Industry goal to improve the profitability of local businesses?  What structures will be put in place to ensure that the three Depts talk to each other?  (Not sure you can look to the UK for advice there… )
  • If the goal is to help the poorest X% increase productivity on rainfed soils, what is the best mix of incentives?  How can we monitor that mix to ensure it’s delivering against the goal?  If the evidence shows that we’re not reaching our target, can we change the mix of incentives without doing too much damage?  [Do subsidies have a role in ensuring input provision and, if so, what is meant by a ‘smart subsidy’? If not, what other incentives/investments make most sense?]  See above about who owns the policy goal for this.
  • What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?  I can’t work with this one at all: it needs to be far more specific – e.g. if the goal is income growth in region X, is it worth focusing on improving crop productivity because the roads are lousy and transport costs are too high to effectively market the surplus?  Given that the delivery mechanisms in place look like this……. what is the most appropriate sequence of interventions (roads, water catchment systems, crop productivity…)?
  • What is the role for the state – in managing, supporting, coordinating, regulating, financing – and which parts of the state need support to make this happen?  You can’t answer this one unless you have a clear idea of what the policy goal is.
  • What type of policy processes are required to ensure pro-poor outcomes and avoid capture by elites, commercial interests and others?  What exactly do you mean by policy processes?  At what level?
  • What enabling conditions need to be in place (e.g. trade policy, infrastructure, investment)?  For what?
  • How should ‘success’ and ‘impact’ defined? Again, for what?  It’s about working through the individual policy goals, using existing and emerging evidence which is interpreted in light of what policy is trying to achieve for that particular issue at that particular time.

Louise Shaxson, Director
Delta Partnership

Andrew Dorward
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Ian has provided an excellent summary of the issues: how do we chart a way forward?

Picking up on some of the points Ian has made, I would like to put forward five starting points which I suggest have wide but of course not universal validity:

  1. In most situations complementary use of both inorganic and organic fertilisers will be needed to promote soil health and fertility
  2. The critical issues for both organic and inorganic investments are profitability and affordability. Profitability involves soil fertility investments (of labour and working capital) yielding a return greater than their cost (allowing for seasonal interest rates and opportunity costs). Profitability depends upon farmgate input and output prices, input effectiveness (in terms of crop response), and risks (of price changes and low yields). Affordability depends upon farmgate input prices, opportunity costs of seasonal labour, working capital, and access to and costs of seasonal credit. Problems of both profitability and affordability of soil fertility investments are often compounded by inequity and insecurity in land tenure and in gender roles, rights and responsibilities.
  3. Soil fertility for the production of staple foods is of critical importance but also very challenging. Around 50% of African farmers are poor net buyers of food. Investments in soil fertility may be more profitable for these farmers than for surplus producers, as they value staple production at consumer purchase prices – but their soil fertility investments are critically constrained by major affordability constraints. Surplus producers may face lower affordability constraints than poor deficit producers, but since they earn lower farmgate sales prices, the profitability of soil fertility investments is lower, particularly in good years. Risks of low yields and bad years with high prices encourage low input subsistence production, but risks of low prices in good years discourage investments in high input surplus production. The result is large amounts of land and labour locked into low productivity staple cultivation. This reduces farm incomes, and this constrains demand for local non-staple products (livestock products, horticultural products) and for local non-farm goods and services.
  4. The need for large scale solutions to diverse problems suggests market mechanisms for matching supply to diverse demand. However affordability and profitability problems in staple food production lead to (and are maintained by) low level traps inhibiting the development of inorganic input markets (with low volumes and small transactions raising delivery costs, risks and margins), while supply of and demand for higher value local horticultural and animal products (which could otherwise boost agricultural productivity, input market development, and organic systems) is itself constrained by low staple productivity. Credit market failures are a critical feature of this, but microfinance initiatives are markedly absent from poor, low staple productivity rural areas.
  5. High food and fertiliser prices exacerbate these problems. Although high food prices should stimulate profitability of staple production, they also increase the affordability problems of the 50% of African farmers who are poor net food buyers, and depress demand by these people for non staple products and non-farm goods and services. High fertiliser prices lead to increased affordability problems for surplus producers as well.

Given these very difficult starting points, how can soil fertility investments, agricultural productivity, rural incomes and poverty reduction advance?

Historically large scale credit and input subsidies with output price stabilisation and heavy extension emphasis on high input packages underpinned both the Asian Green Revolution with its subsequent pro-poor growth  and dramatic increases in fertiliser use and maize yields in various countries in Africa in the 1970s and 80s. These gains were achieved at very significant cost and in Africa could not be sustained without continued donor support, which was not forthcoming. There has been widespread recent interest in the use of smart input subsidies, most notably in Malawi from 2005/6. Much can and must be learnt from the Malawi experience, which demonstrates both the potential for such subsidy programmes and their weaknesses – potential and weaknesses as regards both the technical aspects of soil, market and subsidy management and inherent political economy paradoxes.

Recent growth in fertiliser use on maize in Kenya has followed a very different path. Lack of government intervention in a dynamic fertiliser market supplying large and small scale cash crop producers and large scale maize producers (in a protected and relatively stable maize market) has attracted private sector investment (by both national and international firms) and fostered competition and economies of scale. This, with reduced road haulage costs, has both pushed down importer and distributor margins and (with judicious donor support) stimulated a network of small agrodealers selling small fertiliser packs in rural areas – to both cash crop and maize producers.

There are major questions about the wider applicability, strengths and weaknesses of different aspects of both these models: how can their complementary strengths be exploited, and what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for their different elements’ success? The common challenge is how to foster stable conditions that promote increasing profitability and affordability for both farmer and private input supplier investments promoting soil fertility in both staple and cash crop production. This has to be linked to the need for rapid improvements in food security and incomes of poor rural people, and for more emphasis on complementary organic soil fertility investments.

Unfortunately high global food and fertiliser prices undermine both these models. In the first case they increase the costs of subsidies while at the same time reducing subsidies’ ability to drive wider growth and investment through lower food prices. In the second case lower cash crop profitability (from lower price increases in traditional export crops as compared with food and fertiliser prices) and higher fertiliser prices will increase affordability problems and depress growth in input demand – and hence depress input supplier investment incentives. How much is the increased relative attractiveness of complementary organic soil fertility investments and hence greater incentives for such investments a silver lining in these challenging conditions? These of course also face market, technical and political economy challenges.

Andrew Dorward, Professor
School of Oriental and African Studies, London


Minde, I., et al. (2008) Fertilizer Subsidies and Sustainable Agricultural Growth in Africa: Current Issues and Empirical Evidence from Malawi, Zambia, and Kenya

School of Oriental and African Studies, et al. (2008) Evaluation of the 2006/7 Agricultural  Input Supply Programme, Malawi: Final Report.
Dorward, A.R. and C. Poulton (2008) The Global Fertiliser Crisis and Africa,
Poulton , C. and A. Dorward, (2008) Getting agricultural moving: role of the state in increasing staple food crop productivity with special reference to coordination, input subsidies, credit and price stabilisation, Paper prepared for AGRA Policy Workshop, Nairobi, Kenya, June 23–25, 2008.
Scoones, I. (2008) Policy frameworks for increasing soil fertility in Africa: debating the alternatives.

Adrian Cullis
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

In responding to the debate, I draw on the framework of ‘drivers’, ‘consequences’ and ‘responses’ (used at the recent Livestock in a Changing Landscape consultation in Bangkok led by FAO et al).

Too many people, too few livestock: I think Sandford is correct to make the point that there are significant changes taking place in people/livestock ratios and as a result population is correctly identified as one of the primary ‘drivers’ of change in pastoral areas. I think however that Sandford’s paper would be more compelling if he identified other major ‘drivers’ of change that impact negatively on the growing imbalance in human/livestock ratios. I am of the view that land alienation to agriculture and historically wildlife conservation is a significant ‘driver’ of change. Whilst this is cited by Sandford, inadequate consideration is given to the fact that policy makers in the Horn of Africa could have legislated in favor of protecting rangeland, but not only was this not done but ‘encouragement’ has been given to agriculture (both irrigated and rainfed) and wildlife conservation at the expense of pastoralism with the result that total herd sizes are inevitably restricted (this trend is however worse amongst some pastoral communities than others). I think donor response/ emergency response is another ‘driver’ of change with the overriding emphasis on food aid (for example in the 2006 Horn of Africa drought an estimated 70% of the total drought relief budget was spent on food aid) as opposed to alternative livelihood support which would have better protected livestock assets (emergency animal health, supplementary feeding for livestock etc. – I attach a note on some of Save the Children/US’s recent drought interventions). The final additional ‘driver’ of change is the increasing demand for livestock products in Africa and the Middle East and therefore more secure as opposed to less insecure livestock markets. I agree with much of what Sandford writes regarding ‘consequences’: for example, the worsening human/livestock ratios. Thus I appreciate that smaller herd size has led to some former pastoralists being forced to diversify their livelihoods, including a substantial increase in the number of agro-pastoralists and also some dropping out of the livestock production altogether. Many of these ex-pastoralists survive in conditions of abject poverty on the edge of towns and trading centers eking out a living by collecting firewood, making charcoal, pottering, brewing beer etc. As a result of the downward spiral of herd size and hence viability, child nutrition is becoming an increasing cause of concern. I think increasing conflict could also be cited as a consequence of the changes, with pastoralists more fiercely competing for available resources specifically access to and control over rangeland and associated water resources. There are however more positive consequences including the opening up of increasing marketing opportunities in Africa and the Middle East as demonstrated by the recent offtake of droughted livestock in Ethiopia which were marketed to the Middle East (see attached draft Participatory Impact Assessment – PIA). There are a number of responses to these consequences. For example, contemporary pastoral livelihoods are, as cited by Devereux and Scoones, more diversified and integrated with the cash economy than formerly. Others have already left the rangelands far behind them and moved not only into IDP camps but also into other countries, some living successfully in Europe. As a result Sandford’s notions of ‘viability’ and ‘carrying capacity’ are rightly questioned. Involved in pastoral development with Save the Children in Ethiopia I am particularly interested in responses and offer the following thoughts: 1. Leg 4: The total livestock herd is not equitably distributed between households. However significant redistribution is not, in practice feasible … perhaps not but inadequate attention has in my view been given to support for customary livestock re-distribution systems. Whilst pastoralists (as with the majority global community) may be resistant to taxation, it may be that more could have been done to help pastoral communities better regulate the ‘break away’ of very wealthy herders. With this thought in mind Save the Children/US in Ethiopia has included a ‘local contribution’ in its restocking project (in one Somali community a local contribution of 25% of the livestock involved in the restocking was provided by wealthy clan members).
2. Leg 5: .. as a result of the expansion of cultivation and of wildlife conservation areas … whilst this may have been true in the past, I see increasing hope in the better integration of extensive livestock production and wildlife conservation and would cite the work of African Parks in South Omo, Ethiopia as an emerging positive case study, where AP staff are working with local authorities and NGOs in a community mapping initiative which it is planned will result in the more equitable sharing of natural resources and benefits from wildlife conservation. More pressure from enlightened conservationists would help speed the pace of progress
3. Leg 6: there are no known technologies for significantly increasing primary range production … this may be the case but in Ethiopia the ‘banning’ of fire has resulted in significant losses in rangeland productivity and an initiative is currently underway involving the US Forest Service to re-introduce fire as a modern rangeland management tool. This, if successful, will result in substantial increases in rangeland productivity. There are other initiatives underway in Ethiopia which suggest that greater recognition and support for customary natural management institutions can result in better land management and the safeguarding of drought reserves. However I agree with Sandford that more needs to be done (a donor reading this may like to contact Save the Children/US Ethiopia with a view to funding some very innovative work with customary pastoral natural resource management institutions!)
4. Leg 9: the market prospects are not very favorable for increasing the unit value of pastoralists’ livestock ….. as per the PIA attached I think there are real market prospects in particular if cross-border trade can be better facilitated and other disincentives removed. Note too should be taken of the fact that as a result of increasing export opportunities prices per kg of sheep and goat meat in Moyale have increased by as much as 25% within the last 12 months. Inevitably these will fluctuate but in my view Sandford is too negative about the livestock marketing opportunities.
5. Sandford’s implications of the thesis include policy reforms …. I think there is a huge amount more that could and should be done and donor support is absolutely critical in this regard, as suggested by Sandford in the area of land tenure reform. For example, Jeremy Swift has suggested for some time that pastoralists should be granted 49 year leases over rangelands that they have effectively managed for generations – amongst other things this may help reduce land alienation to both farmers and more aggressive pastoral communities. Others suggestions circulating at present include drought insurance; contingency planning (in this regard if the Government of Ethiopia had been able to implemented its 1993 disaster management policy in full, considerable additional resources would already be being channeled into livelihoods support for livestock keepers); and improved access to appropriate basic service delivery. The challenge here it seems to me, is as much policy reform as policy implementation. I appreciate that as Sandford suggests responses alone may no longer be enough, but I feel that those concerned about the future of people living in pastoral areas would do better to focus on positive action as encouraged by Devereux and Scoones than dwell on the crisis and despair. Adrian Cullis
Team Leader – Food and Livelihood Security Unit,
Save the Children/US, Ethiopia

Jeremy Keenan
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

A colleague at Reading forwarded to me the contribution on big-small farms from Roy Keijzer, saying that I might find the reference to Mali interesting. I cannot contribute much to the main debate, as it is not my field. However, with reference to the Mail Niger inland Delta scheme to which Roy Keijzer refers, I can make the following comment: While his remarks about its present state of development etc may well be valid, its colonial history are interesting, in that it was developed originally by the French to counter the British cotton-growing Gezira scheme.

The Office du Niger scheme was probably one of the very worst forms of colonial development, at least as far as the local people were concerned. They were treated horrendously and suffered appallingly. The scheme was a large blot of shame on colonial development at that time. In fact, the Office du Niger project was one of the first classic social anthropological studies of the late Claude Meillassoux. Not surprisingly, the French did much to cover up his research and findings.

When dealing with such schemes/regions in their present day context, their previous exploitation (it was not development) should not be forgotten.
Jeremy Keenan, School of Oriental and African Studies

Roland Bunch
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

I was very surprised to find the comment that “biological soil fertility options” are problematic because they “require considerable labour and skill inputs, as well as large volumes of biomass,” and no mention whatsoever of “green manure/cover crops (gm/cc).”  The disconnect between people talking at the international level, and what is going on in the fields of resource-poor farmers in Latin America, Africa and Asia continues to be…well, frightening.

Green manure/cover crop systems do vary greatly around the world and around Africa, depending on climate, basic cropping systems, land tenure and dietary preferences, among other things.  Yet they are already widely practiced by resource-poor farmers, in Africa as well as the other continents.  I have personally stumbled across some 85 such systems spread across over 40 nations.  In one case I researched a single system that is practiced among perhaps 50,000 farmers from Honduras through Guatemala and Belize to Mexico.  Hundreds of thousands of farmers, if not millions, use similar systems in South America and Southeast Asia, and other hundreds of thousands in each of a dozen nations of Africa, at least.

Many gm/cc systems reduce farmers’ labour, because when the gm/cc is intercropped with cash or subsistence crops, they often control the weeds, thereby eliminating one or more of the farmers’ (usually women’s) weeding operations.  Thus, the assumption that these systems necessarily require added labour is just plain wrong.  It is true that improving soils dramatically (ie doubling or tripling low traditional levels of productivity) requires large amounts of biomass, but that this factor is listed as a problem of biological options is wrong because the gm/cc species produce that biomass in the field (often 40 to 70 t/ha, green weight), at very little cost.  In fact, in many, if not most, of the adopted gm/cc systems around the world, the beans, peas or other food or fodder produced by the gm/cc is much more valuable than the labour and costs occasioned by the practice.  That is, the net cost/value of the biomass produced for soil improvement (that biomass not going to either the market or the family table) is negative.

The skill inputs needed by the top agronomists in a country may be fairly large, but for any single farmer or village of farmers they are rarely much more than those required to use inorganic fertilizers efficiently.

To respond, then, to your question about inorganics being the best entry, my response is that, in the vast majority of cases, they are not the best.  If the soil still has enough natural fertility to grow weeds, farmers can grow green manure/cover crops along with their regular crops, as improved fallows, on “wastelands,” or in other niches that don’t have any opportunity cost.  Such a technology requires an investment of a few pennies to buy the original gm/cc seed, and within a year (or sometimes two) can make a major improvement in the farmers’ productivity, soil water retention, infiltration of water, crop root growth, resistance to termite damage, resistance to erosion, soil organic matter content, nitrogen content, etc.  Inorganic fertilizers may supplement the gm/cc (especially to provide replacement phosphorus, plus nitrogen when there are problems of synchronisation), but these applications would usually be in much smaller quantities than conventional agronomists would recommend.

Roland Bunch, former member
UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger

Christian Bonte-Friedheim
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Ian Scoone’s Paper makes interesting reading, but there are a number of open questions and issues – to be posed at the beginning of any campaign, and before starting Africa-wide (as the title suggests) such a large program.

The very first point is the (somewhat underlying ?) assumption for lay-persons that in every respect Africa has uniform or at least comparable (human and natural) conditions: – soils – soils’ nutrient content and (water) keeping capacity (large areas of very sandy soils) – climatic – rainfall – agricultural practices, preferred food and cash crops, human population and their food preferences, etc, etc. In effect there will (and must) be hundreds of different approaches and programs for the continent. (One important question relates to the importance of the soil “quality” in the national and international breeding programs).

My second – but most important point covers suitable national professionals, (made) available for or attracted to such rather long term agricultural research and development work in poor rural areas, and with uncertain results.

My third point relates to an issue whether the policy makers and other interested parties, especially in Africa, will not misinterpret research questions, issues, expected results and general adoption uncertainties with promises. Unfortunately many have been made before – few with lasting results.

What is (are) the major aim(s) of increasing soil fertility in Africa?

  • Higher and steadily increasing productivity (most likely land), but how about rural labour productivity (female above all) or both?
  • To overcome – or at least to acknowledge and take appropriate action – of differences in soil and water quality requirements – but also of all other production factors of different food crops (which), and cash crops (which), annuals as well as perennials.
  • To improve year-round nutrition and better nutritional standards for all population groups, also and especially in the rural areas, and for women and children.
  • To provide higher agriculture based incomes for the rural population.
  • To reduce imports of agricultural produce through better local supplies for the urban population.
  • To guarantee improving long term soil fertility levels for steadily increasing  (and not decreasing) agricultural production, raising the productivity of all inputs. The problem of increasing soil fertility under comparable natural conditions needs new approaches, and much more preparation of and with all involved, than still widely assumed. Furthermore any program needs at the beginning a first class selection of likely successes, keeping in mind (among others) soils, rainfall (total and distribution), temperature, the potential of different food and cash crops, their growing periods and length, water as well as plant nutrient requirements, in addition rural labour requirements, especially at peak times (women and/or men) in quality and quantity, etc. etc. In many cases (not only between countries, but between rural areas) the importance and timely availability of each factor differs.

Therefore: is there sufficient comparability of issues for all of Africa to start an Africa wide program? Does such program include sufficiently the human factor and involved people’s preferences and likely choices?

The question is:  Can we afford sizeable failures with a very large and necessarily very long term project, where many results will hardly be comparable between regions, countries?

The present situation in Africa and approaches for improvement

There are a very large number of food and cash crops with their own dependence and requirements on soil fertility, and other production factors, including traditional or improved or even new farming practices. Are we sure about the specific bottlenecks? So far machinery has not replaced human labour for most crops.

There are different demands for agricultural produce, keeping in mind traditions as well changing urban and rural preferences for food – as well as for cash and export crops.

How to start with improving such often tradition based situations? Select national leaders and professionals at all levels – people who are knowledgeable of and interested in solving many of the short term, but also some of the longer-term rural problems:  (poor ) often undernourished people in the rural areas, especially women, lack of education, little income – very often only seasonal -, but also problems with respect to soil fertility (specific nutrients), specific food crops, certain market crops, but also crop losses and crop waste..

For such a large and important attempt on any national basis the program planning, the management, the responsibility for success but also failures must rest first and foremost with nationals.

Start with many small programs, developed by nationals, including rural partners, exchange experiences, failures and results. Set timetables (don’t be open ended) – identify early-on potential and expected results. Exchange positive as well as negative experiences.

Conclusions and Recommendations

  • Do not start with an Africa-wide Program – start with this Program IN Africa. Learn and improve while implementing. There will be many, many years for widely acceptable results – and at the same time too many disappointments;
  • Select areas where success is most likely: because of natural conditions, farmers and their traditions, Government policies, and general interest;
  • For the rural areas and the poor farmers provide rural storage facilities to protect their produce and ensure food self-sufficiency all year long;
  • For cash crops assist in programs “cash for delivery”, and introduce more cash crops. (The rapid expansion of “khat” production in Eastern Africa and its possible effects on other cash and food crops is worth studying – for comparable application to other crops.

Remember: Nothing succeeds like success

Christian Bonte-Friedheim, Board Member
Syngenta: Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture

Abdi Abdullahi
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

I have two general comments in response to the Sandford paper: 1. We need to ask whether food aid in pastoral areas is due to need or politics? Are some of the problems raised by the paper real or not? I think much food aid exists for political reasons rather than genuine need. Food given to pastoralists only covers an insignificant proportion of food needs of a pastoral family. Most food is generated through the pastoral economy.

We must ask why the response to droughts or floods is food aid, rather than interventions more focused on supporting pastoralists’ livelihoods. While in some cases food is needed, it is often provided in the form of wheat. What is the logic in transporting such resources from the US or Canada, while locally produced food could have been purchased at a much lower price? Such interventions distort and divert efforts to real pastoral development, adding to a misplaced pessimism. 2. Drought is part and parcel of pastoralists’ life. Risk is one thing they know well and have developed sound coping mechanisms to respond. If it was not for these coping mechanisms pastoralists and their animals would have long perished. The paper ignores the resilience of pastoral systems, and the way increasingly diversified livelihoods contribute.

Abdi Abdullahi
Pastoral Forum of Ethiopia

C. Devendra
January 22, 2010 / Small Farm / Big Farm

I have read with interest the ongoing exchange of emails concerning above, and cannot resist the opportunity to make a few comments.

Please permit me to present an Asian perspective.

1). Some of the comments made mainly from the ” North ” give the impression of poor understanding of what constitutes small farms. These probably stem from inadequate R and D efforts to appreciate the systems, infinite complexities needs and opportunities.

2). Even the very definition of what are small farms appears to be unclear if not poorly defined  – going from the references to small farms or smallholders in the developing countries to ” family farms ” in the ” North”. probably because of this and the overwhelming reference to globalisation, many in the industrialised countries have mentioned that these small farms are likely to disappear in the future. An important recently published  talked of  “current trends in structural change imply the likely and probably accelerating exit of smallholder livestock producers in developing and developed countries”. In Asia at any rate, this conclusion is  unacceptable.

3). A definition that has been used  in Asia is as follows: “Small farms have been defined as complex interrelationships between animals , crops and farming families , involving small land holdings and minimum resources of labour and capital , from which small farmers may or may not be able to derive a regular and adequate supply of food or an acceptable income and standard of living “.

4). In global terms, small farms in Asia account for an estimated 87 % of all farms below two hectares . Many of these are models of diversification and efficiency in NRM. While globalisation has undoubtedly have had effects- and there have been other crisis as well,  many if not most have survived and are self reliant because of the low input systems, minimum external inputs , and resilience. In animal production, these farms currently contribute significant amounts of milk, ruminant meats, draught power, duck meat and eggs.

5). Two related  issues that have not been addressed concern the links to poverty and type of small farms. Agric. growth in the past has significantly contributed to reducing poverty, but as ESCAP( 2008) has recently reported , waning agriculture has slowed the decline in poverty. Stimulating small farm productivity is thus important. Concerning type of farms in Asia, those in the irrigated areas are the richer due to benefits of the Green Revolution, while those
in the rainfed areas are poorer and were largely by-passed . For various reasons including poverty ,  future development needs to focus on the latter. Results from several countries in the region highlight increased production due to improved technology application.

6). Increasing the contribution from small farms in the future can benefit from increased investments in R and D on small farms ,  accelerated technology application and delivery systems, intensification and commercialisation, improved market access, rural infrastructure and cooperatives, backed by appropriate policy. Focusing on these and other issues  is urgent in the light of the food crisis. Many of these issues will also apply to other parts of the developing world.  Dr. Wiggins is correct in his assessment that given the right conditions, small farms can serve food production in the future.  

C. Devendra, International Livestock Research Institute

Andrew MacMillan and Amir Kassam
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

The overall debate question is: “…. What are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility [in Africa] in ways that will boost production in a sustainable fashion, where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, board-based development?”

We suggest the following design principles as a basis for effective policy.

1. Distinguish between increasing national food production and achieving full household level food security.

  1. Raising national food output does not necessarily lead to improved household and individual food security and nutrition: it may, however, contribute to lower food prices and hence increase the amount and possibly quality of food that poor families can afford to buy
  2. If very small-scale farmers, who themselves are food insecure, increase their output, this is likely to improve their food security and nutrition
  3. If increased food production comes mainly from small-scale farmers rather than large-scale farmers, this is likely to contribute indirectly to greater food security in rural communities, because production systems are more labour-intensive and hence more people receive earnings (or, in some cases, payments in food) from food production related activities.
  4. In most situations, higher levels of productivity are attained on small-scale rather than large-scale farms, and hence, where land is scarce, strategies for expanding food output mainly by small-scale farmers are not only more equitable but also likely to be more successful in raising output.

2. There are very few situations in which full household food security can be attained simply by raising national food production: income redistribution measures, especially targeted cash transfers (or other social security programmes) must be part of the solution, even in rural areas.

3. In many areas of Africa, there is unused land with reasonable agricultural potential. As long as labour is amply available and there is easy access to land, growth in production by small farmers in these areas can continue to come from expanding the agricultural frontier, with limited use of external inputs.

4. In other regions, where rural population density is high, intensification offers the only route for expanding food output.

5. In most agricultural land use situations in Africa, avoiding reductions in soil organic matter (OM) content is essential if soils are to be cropped intensively on a sustainable basis. If OM levels are allowed to fall, there will be a progressive decline in soil fertility.

6. Where soils are not already seriously depleted in organic matter, using inorganic fertilizers and soil amendments (including lime) can help to increase vegetative material production and build up soil OM content, provided that crop residues are retained on the land and soils are not disturbed by tillage.

7. Inversion soil tillage, whether by hoe or plough, accelerates the decline in soil OM content and the biotic activity it supports, and destroys soil porosity, and is best avoided or restricted to crop “planting stations”.

8. Use of Conservation Agriculture (CA) principles and practices (minimal or no-till, soil cover with mulch and residues, and crop rotations, especially with legumes) results in an increase in soil OM and nitrogen levels and hence can do much to maintain soil health and fertility.

9. CA is the foundation for a greener revolution that can make intensive farming sustainable, cut energy use (whether human or fuel-derived energy) in food production, decrease agro-chemical contamination in the environment, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, minimize run-off and soil erosion, make a higher proportion of rainfall available for crop growth, and improve the quality and dependability of fresh water supplies.

10. But the CA requirement for retention of crop residues and use of cover crops is difficult to reconcile, especially in low-rainfall areas, with other demands for crop residues – livestock feed, fuel, brick-making. In these situations, CA systems need to incorporate components that provide for animal feed and fuel while at the same time enabling adequate soil surface residue cover.

11. Moreover, where no-till systems have to use herbicides for weed control, this will usually decrease their attractiveness to small-scale farmers who do not have access to herbicides or the equipment to apply them, or want to engage in organic farming.  Manual or non-chemical weed control can be difficult and time-consuming in the first years of practicing a CA system but, after a few years of good weed control and use of cover crops weed populations decline and become more manageable.

12. Best approaches to sustainable soil fertility improvement are likely to be location specific due to diverse agro-ecological and socioeconomic situations: “wholesaling” of standard solutions is unlikely to be feasible. However, mainstreaming of CA principles adapted to these diverse situations over time should form a policy goal for increasing soil fertility and enabling sustainable crop intensification.

13. In most situations, a shift to sustainable practices based on Conservation Agriculture principles requires fundamental changes in the ways in which farming is currently practiced and cannot be induced by top-down “message delivery” type extension services, though these may succeed in promoting greater use of fertilizers.

14. Instead, it is necessary to enable farmers to raise their level of understanding of the underlying causes of declining soil fertility and to engage them in testing CA-based options for improvement. The experiential learning methods practiced in Farmer Field Schools are very relevant to creating local capacities for moving towards more sustainable intensive farming systems with CA, adapted to local situations.

15. To the extent that farmer-facilitated and self-financing field school models are taken up, they have the advantage of imposing only limited demands on highly skilled staff and on recurrent budgets and hence can be scaled up rapidly without running into serious institutional, manpower and funding constraints.

16. Policies (e.g. subsidies) that promote fertilizer uptake or ploughing without linking these to the more complex changes in farming systems that may be needed to mainstream CA practices in Africa will undermine a shift towards sustainable soil fertility management and should therefore be avoided. In contrast, policies that compensate farmers for the enhanced provision of environmental services associated with the application of CA principles could accelerate a move towards more sustainable land use systems.

There is growing evidence of successful management of soil fertility for crop intensification on both large and small-scale farms using Conservation Agriculture practices in Africa from countries as diverse as Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Morocco, Swaziland, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, covering a range of agro-ecological and socioeconomic conditions. The fact that Conservation Agriculture is now practised on almost 100 million hectares worldwide implies that the principles on which it is based are recognised by farmers as one major potential alternative for enhancing soil fertility and for sustainable agricultural intensification in Africa and internationally.

Andrew MacMillan, former Director
FAO Field Operations Division

Amir Kassam, Senior Agricultural Research Officer
CGIAR Interim Science Council Secretariat

Ken Giller
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

  • What are the design principles for effective policy?
  • How can a strategy that operates at scale take account of the diversity of agro-ecological and socio-economic circumstances on the ground?

In southern Africa we were working actively through the SoilFertNet during the 1990s on targeting technologies, and came up with the term ‘best bet’ technologies to try to escape the idea of silver bullets that would work everywhere (see e.g. Waddington et al., 1998). When sitting in a discussion for the Africa Challenge Programme in Blantyre, Malawi, with Paul Mapfumo (UZ-SOFECSA) and John Pender (IFPRI) the suggestion came we should be thinking of ‘best-fit’ technologies (Giller et al., 2009). This was based on work through our NUANCES framework (Giller et al., 2006) that has extended this the idea of targeting to a (hierarchical) systematic analysis of fields, farmers and farming systems in terms of agroecologies, market access and infrastructure, education, resource endowments, local field variability etc to recognise the “socioecological niches” for technologies (Ojiem et al., 2006). John Pender referred to an IFPRI report that called for best fit approaches to information delivery services (Birner et al., 2006).

I think the idea of one policy or one approach is what we have to escape from – we need to move towards a ‘best fit’ policy approach – that can be tailored to the needs and opportunities of different regions. I believe our NUANCES methodology gives us a structured way of revealing the diversity and heterogeneity within farming systems and allows us to analyse trade-offs for technologies, and likely effects of policies in terms of their impact (e.g. Tittonell et al., 2008a; Tittonell et al., 2008b).

BUT – when we start to discuss these ideas, people at the policy end tend to be frightened off – they seem to want to treat Africa as a homogeneous ‘flat earth’ rather than the hugely diverse continent that it is… For me the most important design principle for effective policy is to recognise that – in the same way there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technology, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy!

Birner, R., Davis, K., Pender, J., Nkonya, E., Ananajayasekeram, P., Ekboir, J., Mbabu, A., Spielman, D., Horna, D., Benin, S., Kisamba-Mugerwa, W., 2006. From “Best Practice” to “Best Fit”: A Framework for Designing and Analyzing Pluralistic Agricultural Advisory Services. IFPRI, Washington.
Giller, K.E., Rowe, E., de Ridder, N., van Keulen, H., 2006. Resource use dynamics and interactions in the tropics: Scaling up in space and time. Agric. Syst. 88, 8-27.
Giller, K.E., Vanlauwe, B., Mapfumo, P., Baijukya, F.P., Ojiem, J.O., Pender, J., Tittonell, P., 2009. Best-fits for diverse and heterogeneous farming systems in Africa: from fields to farms and farming systems. forthcoming.
Ojiem, J.O., de Ridder, N., Vanlauwe, B., Giller, K.E., 2006. Socio-ecological niche: A conceptual framework for integration of legumes in smallholder farming systems. Int. J. Agric. Sust. 4, 79-93.
Tittonell, P., Corbeels, M.C., van Wijk, M., Vanlauwe, B., Giller, K.E., 2008a. Combining organic and mineral fertilizers for integrated soil fertility management in smallholder farming systems of Kenya – explorations using the crop/soil model FIELD. Agron. J. doi: 10.2134agronj2007.0355.
Tittonell, P., van Wijk, M., Herrero, M., Rufino, M.C., de Ridder, N., Giller, K.E., 2008b. Inefficiencies and resource constraints – exploring the physical feasibility of options for the intensification of smallholder crop-livestock systems in Vihiga district, Kenya. Agric. Syst. in press.
Waddington, S.R., Gilbert, R., Giller, K.E., 1998. “Best Bet” technologies for increasing nutrient supply for maize on smallholder farms. In: Waddington, S.R., Murwira, H.K., Kumwenda, J.D.T., Hikwa, D., Tagwira, F. (Eds.), Soil Fertility Research for Maize-based Farming Systems in Malawi and Zimbabwe. SoilFertNet/CIMMYT-Zimbabwe, Harare, Zimbabwe, pp. 245-250.

[See additional contributions in Resources]

Ken Giller, University of Wageningen

Layne Coppock
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

I have worked now for 25 years in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya. I have been fortunate to be able to follow situations on the ground during much of this time. My role has included applied research, participatory research, outreach facilitation, and local capacity building.

The pastoral dynamics described by Stephen Sandford are already pretty well known by people who have carefully observed these systems over many years. In addition to recent efforts by the PARIMA project, previous work by ILCA in Kajiado Maasailand (ILCA Systems Study No. 4 of 1991) and on the Borana Plateau (ILCA Systems Study No. 5 of 1994) point to similar pastoral system trends.

Upon reviewing the arguments by Sandford and Devereaux/Scoones, I side with the more optimistic views of Devereaux/Scoones. As I look back over the large literature on livestock development, one comment stands out from a book by Hans Jahnke (1982). Jahnke essentially said that while the technical options for livestock development on Africa’s rangelands were slim at best, the scope for development of human potential among rangeland inhabitants was vast. The last few years working in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have convinced me that this perspective is correct. Livestock development, after all, should be to the benefit of human beings—freeing them from hunger and marginalization. Many of us have made profound errors in our careers by focusing more on the technical aspects of livestock development while discounting the real goals of human development. So, one interesting question is, “Are there multiple pathways to improve the human condition in rangelands, besides just having a sole focus on the livestock component?” The livestock economy is crucial, for sure, but are there other “sustainable, small victories” to be achieved? One of the more interesting aspects I have observed of late is how many rangeland inhabitants can have their lives transformed by observing success of innovative peers, exposing them to new ways of thinking, and providing access to some basic education. In essence, helping people more effectively engage a changing world and have more choices about how they live day-to-day.

The example I have is the creation of 60 dynamic collective-action groups in southern Ethiopia (with over 2,000 members in total, 76% women) over the past five years. This process has been accelerated to a large extent by exposing the Ethiopians to peers from northern Kenya who have made remarkable achievements in a variety of self-help initiatives starting in the 1980s. Thousands have attended cross-border rallies in the past couple of years, and thousands have been trained in a variety of capacity-building efforts focused on micro-finance and entrepreneurial endeavors. People have learned to reconfigure their lives a bit and be a little more informed in terms of how they can better manage themselves and their families in a difficult and changing environment. People who were illiterate and incapable of making simple calculations with a pencil a few years ago now successfully manage small businesses, negotiate with exporters, market livestock, and handle large sums of money. Livelihood diversification happens and interesting local niches are discovered. Human capital, social capital, and financial capital are all being created. Details of this process are forthcoming.

It is therefore tempting to look at the big picture as Sandford has and see little other than calamity and chaos, but in terms of impacting individual lives a considerable scope exists for change, if for no other reason than the baseline condition can be so grim. I also believe there is a bias among some scholars who discount the value of education and capacity building among the rural poor. Pastoralists in particular are often viewed as “all knowing” and inherently capable of coping with considerable change if we just left them alone. My recent experiences tell me this is not true. Many pastoral women have told us that they never dreamed of anything different from the difficult lives they previously lead until they were inspired and awakened by innovative peers to do a few things differently.

Yes, Sandford and others are correct that the challenges are daunting. Several factors must properly line up if major progress is to be achieved and sustained, including improvements in markets and governance that lie far beyond the control of pastoralists and their advocates. But things will be worse if we stand by and do nothing. The larger environment for southern Ethiopia has a few favorable trends underway at the moment. For example, never have the export market opportunities been greater for Borana livestock than they are today. Never have there been greater incentives for pastoralists to improve livestock production practices to take advantage of new market opportunities. Never has the region held the positive attentions from policy makers than what occurs today. I have been impressed by the depth of knowledge that many policy makers posses about pastoralism and the need for multi-faceted, pastoral development approaches. The technical know-how and capacities of NGOs and GOs in southern Ethiopia have never been stronger than they are today. As one case in point, the Oromia Agricultural Research Institute (GO) is ready to embark on a major prescribed fire plan across the region to assist in reclaiming large areas of the Borana Plateau from bush encroachment. This is being done in partnership with local people, a departure from the old, “top-down” ways of doing business. These points illustrate why I have confidence in the value of building human capacity, at multiple levels, to promote pastoral development.

What are the greatest threats to such seemingly small elements of “progress?” Threats, of course, include things like population growth, resource restriction, and drought over the longer term and poor governance and local/regional conflicts in the shorter term. The major problems reported to us concerning the sustainability of collective-action groups are political and managerial, not environmental.

Layne Coppock
Department of Rangeland Resources, Utah State University

Policy frameworks for increasing soil fertility in Africa: debating the alternatives
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Everyone is agreed that one of the central components of achieving an ‘African Green Revolution’ is to tackle the widespread soil fertility constraints in African agriculture. To this end, AGRA – the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – has launched a major new ‘Soil Health’ programme aimed at 4.1 million farmers across Africa, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation committing $198 million to the effort.

But what are the policy frameworks that really will increase soil fertility in ways that will boost production in a sustainable fashion; where the benefits of the interventions are widely distributed, meeting broader aims of equitable, broad-based development? Here there is much less precision and an urgent need for a concrete debate. For this reason, the Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC) has decided to invite a wide range of participants to debate some key issues around the way forward for policy, and associated institutional arrangements.

P. Phiri Marenya
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Increasing Soil Fertility in Africa: Indispensable but Insufficient

Solving soil fertility management via increased fertilizer and organic inputs is an indispensable but insufficient element of agricultural and rural development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

From my recent research findings I find that suggest that biophysical factors, significantly affects the economic returns to fertilizer inputs. Some farmers cultivating more degraded soils may find it unprofitable to invest in soil nutrient inputs, not necessarily because the fertilizer/crop price ratio is too high or due to credit, information or risk constraints, or because of supply-side impediments, but because marginal yield response to fertilizer application is low on soils that have already undergone serious degradation, suggesting soil fertility mediated poverty traps. Thus using the ‘indispensable but insufficient’ as a key principle, it is possible to outline why taking a broader focus on the soil fertility problem stands a better chance of success. This broader approach will provide complementary (and sufficient) conditions to buttress these programs as part of a broader rural economy.

In this debate I am most interested in the bullet point that asks: What happens when there is no market – or when market mechanisms don’t reach certain places or people?. In my experience, I find that people involved in Agricultural development often look at the process of agricultural development as that of transforming low-productivity subsistence farms into ‘small-scale business firms’ producing and selling some agricultural product for own consumption, sale or both and at the end of the day generating incomes and profit.  I use the term ‘business firm’ because to achieve the kind of increases in the use of fertilizers and other labor intensive soil fertility investments these investments must provide adequate profit or financial returns for individual farmers and for society these investments must also be economically sensible especially where public resources are to be expended. How realistic is it to aim at turning millions of subsistence farmers into businesswomen and men?

The conditions which have made investments in soil fertility inputs (SFI) to become both financially and economically unremunerative (and hence the preponderance of subsistence modes of production) have well been documented which I broadly summarize as follows:

  • Lack of physical and market infrastructure which has stifled the development of commercial fertilizer supply networks.
  • The preponderance of low value agricultural enterprises creates high input-output price ratios making their use infeasible.
  • Lack of requisite financial capital (associated by missing credit markets) to invest in SFI even if such investments offer decent returns.

Therefore, the outcome in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are exactly as predicted by basic tenets of microeconomic theory. These conditions reflect rational responses of economic players in SSA’s agricultural sectors to unfavorable input-output prices for farmers and for potential fertilizer dealers, the resulting thin input markets make fertilizer merchandizing an unprofitable proposition at various levels, hence the low supply of fertilizers.

In order to develop key policy principles for soil fertility recapitalization we need therefore to look more keenly at rural household goals and incentives. This is because incentives should be at the heart of efforts to increase investments in SFI:

  • Is food self sufficiency an overriding incentive for all or just some households? Does food self sufficiency translate into adequate household incomes?
  • Are there rural households in SSA who can solely rely on agricultural markets for their food supply through earning income in rural and peri-urban labor markets or through production of non-staple commodities including livestock products?
  • What might the optimal balance between partly supplying own food and partly relying on agricultural markets for food look like?

Below I sketch three scenarios with attendant policy foci in a way that I believe will broaden the approach to solving soil fertility problems and rural development.

  • Households in areas with little or no reach to markets

In simple terms, these places are cut off from national markets by reason of lack of transport and communication infrastructure or their economic bases have no link to the broader national or regional economies.  In the former case, neither state nor non-government actors can do anything about low supply of fertilizers until there is infrastructure in place to enable commercial or publicly supported delivery.  Self provision of food in these environments may be high on the household’s agenda and should therefore be a legitimate concern for public policy.

In the latter case it is apparent that there is no realistic way of increasing food production without opening up these areas and linking them to the wider world. Will that require increased food production with attendant increases in the use of SFI? Will other natural resource based economic activities such as forestry, livestock production or fishing (which may require more natural resource management than external fertilizers) develop?

Key Policy Principle: If there are realistic chances of increasing the use of SFI excluding fertilizers (and that is a big ‘if’) then these may offer the best chance in the short term for improving soil fertility and food production. Focus on the natural resource management (NRM) aspects of SFI to promote local production of food and inter-household trade within the region may be the most feasible in the immediate term. The most important adjunct is to integrate these areas to national economies by bringing in infrastructure investments in order to allow the importation of food and exportation of niche products from these areas.

The process may lead to these areas joining category number 2 and eventually category 3 below with attendant policy focus.

  • Households in areas with some (moderate) market access.

Households in these regions have some rudimentary access to local labor and agricultural markets. These markets provide some employment opportunities but not sufficient to make them rely solely on labor incomes and agricultural markets for their food consumption. For these households, the greatest benefit will be adequate self-provision of (and perhaps even self sufficiency in) basic foodstuffs. If this can happen and these households are able to spare some labor for off-farm income generation there will be a significant dent on poverty.

Key Policy Principle: Focus on infrastructure investment and ‘Smart Subsidies’ until such a time that  these areas are fully integrated into the national and global economies leading to expansion of economic opportunities and less reliance on subsistence economic activities and more on employment in high-productivity agricultural production as well as in alternative sectors.

  • Households in areas with good (adequate) access to markets

These areas are on average likely to be situated in high potential agro-ecozones which is why infrastructure and markets have developed in these areas. These are also the same areas where input use are likely to be above national average even if not necessarily at par with international averages in similar areas outside SSA. Households in these regions may have greater off-farm employment opportunities and therefore can reasonably rely on local agricultural markets for their food supply. These areas also offer the greatest opportunity for expanding agro-dealer networks. These regions should receive as much attention in terms of fertilizer programs and policies as the low potential areas. Some may worry that such an approach may stretch public resources too much leading to perhaps ‘anti-poor’ outcomes. I disagree. If national policies lead to increased commercial food production in high potential areas and hence lower food prices, the greatest beneficiaries will be the poor households who rely on markets for their food production.  There will always be households for whom own production will be a better alternative. For these I have outlined key principles in category 1 and 2 above.

Key Policy Principle: The chief policy principle in these zones should be increased use of fertilizer to achieve productivity levels at par with international levels while ensuring environmental sustainability. Any macroeconomic policy lever which can be used to reduce fertilizer costs and increase its supply should be fully exploited.

A generic focus on soil fertility management will fail to generate the needed response from farmers or even achieve economic and equity goals unless there is adequate compartmentalization of the problem. It is apparent that there are households and regions where the most economical approach is to enable households use just enough fertilizers and other SFI to achieve a degree of household food self sufficiency and to sustain the soils for continued household food supply. These households generate extra incomes from labor markets. In these areas, public resources in the form of smart subsidies and other approaches may dominate fertilizer and SFI programming.  On the other end of the spectrum is a situation where households will need to increase the use of fertilizers and other SFI considerably for commercialized food and cash crop production. It will be easier to develop market based mechanisms for increased fertilizer supply in these areas.

In this contribution, I have tried to provide an archetypal scheme that can be used for separating out policy approaches suitable for different market circumstances. The key principle that should permeate the whole discussion is that the problem of soil fertility depletion is both a cause and a consequence of underdevelopment. It is possible that progress in non-agricultural sectors within rural areas can stimulate enough economic growth and linkages to agriculture and improve incentives for SFI use without resorting to subsidies to encourage increased use of SFI.

It has been recognized in the background document to this debate that increased use of SFI will not provide the same level of incentives for all households. It may be desirable heighten policy focus on market-based fertilizer (SFI) programs in areas with the greatest financial and economic returns. Other areas may require greater publicly-supported investments in NRM to accompany fertilizer programs. This is especially so if investments in NRM have been hampered by high labor and financial costs.

Agricultural development will require more than increased use of SFI, rather it will require investments in public goods needed for broad rural development. These investments will benefit all sectors of the rural economy providing the best incentives for investing in SFI and reversing soil fertility depletion because these SFI investments will now yield adequate returns by reason of increased and diversified demand for agricultural products. This in my view will provide the best chance for soil fertility recapitalization and agricultural development as part of the rural and national economies.


P. Phiri Marenya, Lecturer
Department of Agricultural Economics University of Nairobi

Joost Brouwer
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

At least in the semi-arid regions of Africa, if within-field soil variability is not taken into account, efforts to increase soil fertility will be less efficient and less likely to be adopted by farmers.  Most of these farmers already practice ‘precision agriculture’ and take short distance variability into consideration in their management. One can safely assume that they do so for good reason, given that their management systems have developed over many centuries.

Precision agriculture is also relevant for the introduction of modern technologies.  For example, the same principles are relevant to the efficient application of manure and the efficient application of compost and mineral fertiliser.

For the best solutions, farmer knowledge, extensionist knowledge and researcher knowledge of within-field soil variability need to be combined.  This will lead to an increase in the knowledge of each group regarding the variability-related possibilities and constraints of the other groups.  Increased farmer knowledge will lead to better and more efficient farmer management.  Increased researcher knowledge of soil variability will lead to better-targeted and more efficient soil fertility research.  If the minimum management area for farmers is part of a field, and researchers only analyse at the level of an entire field or experiment, then those researchers ignore information that is very relevant to the farmers.  They should look for variables at the plot level that help explain why, in any one year as well as over the years, different plots with the same treatment react differently.  They will find this useful for increasing their agro-ecological knowledge, for improving their scientific publications, and especially for more effective extension to the farmers.  Farmers prefer well differentiated advice to blanket advice that turns out not to work part of the time, or in sections of their fields.

For further information, many telling images and additional soil variability literature references, see the final reference in the background document to this internet discussion.  In this downloadable reference there is also information on how better knowledge of within-field soil variability can lead to increased yield security in times of unpredictable climate change.

[Also see publication in Resources]

Joost Brouwer
Brouwer Envir. & Agric. Consultancy, Bennekom

Eric Smaling
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

I commend Ian Scoones for his excellent brief historic account of African soil fertility-related research over the last 10-20 years.

I share a kind of ‘cross-roads’ feeling on Africa, now that food price rises have caused turmoil and protectionist reflexes by rice-exporting countries. The Indian Trade Minister, at the failed WTO talks last week in Geneva put it right: ‘every country should be allowed to strive at food self-sufficiency’.

There are limits to market liberalization for agriculture.  Next, protagonists of free markets have first sealed off their markets in order to develop their agricultural markets. EU and US still do this to a large extent.  If Africa does not step up its own production, it will face a worsening terms of trade on agriculture year after year.  The sale of natural resources to China will not change this. Development has taken off everywhere in the world with a strong agriculture sector.

Africa should be allowed to develop agriculture following a model such as the Common Agricultural Policy.  As a certain size is needed in terms of area and inhabitants, the economic regions such as ECOWAS and COMESA may be suitable units.  EU, AfDB and BMGatesFound can be instrumental in helping the areas to develop their agriculture. Actually, it would fit nicely in the European Development Fund. A demand-supply analysis is needed, and the selection of regions where intensification stands the best chance of success.  Fertilizer needs and distribution networks should ideally also be organized for the economic regions as a whole to benefit from economies of scale. Microdosing efforts should be promoted at a large scale to access resource-poor farmers, and subsidies on fertilizers should be allowed (using the Malawi case as an example). The abolishment of fertilizer subsidies and the virtual ban on parastatals in the 1980s/1990s was a big mistake, somehow admitted by the World Bank in their latest World Development Report. CIMMYT for example was doing a good job with NARS in developing maize hybrids, only to find their effors frustrated by structural adjustment policies.

There is momentum now to really act: but the question Ian rightly poses is: how to act?  In my view, the following investment pays off best, taking a region such as ECOWAS as an example:

  • SECTOR ANALYSIS: analyse food demand and supply for the region, map current and future population distribution; and link that to current and future agriculture areas; analyse necessary price levels to make increased production profitable
  • PRODUCERS: invest strongly in organizing producer organizations/cooperatives: get farmers trained, organized, connected (mobile phones, market information); what motivates them to increase production? are remittances important, making them less anxious to produce more?
  • PRODUCTS: focus on crops with a high response to fertilizers and manure; high-value crops and crops that see demand grow rapidly (e.g. soybean, oilpalm); particular attention for livestock (small ruminants)
  • POPULATION: partition the region into areas of higher and lower potential, proximity to consumers, and infrastructure density and development needs
  • FERTILIZERS: produce N fertilizer in the region, exploit natural P reserves, and do tests on micronutrient needs and deficiencies; recycle town wastes for compost in the peri-urban area
  • POVERTY: for some harsh areas, safety nets may be needed

Less specific for soil fertility, but important as well:

  • The region should be able to protect its market, at least for a number of strategic commodities
  • The region should work on lowering, streamlining, and even abolishing tariffs between member states
  • The countries should work harder on tax collection.

Eric Smaling,
Wageningen Agricultural University

Samuel Gebreselassie
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Policy Framework for Increase and Effective Use of Fertilizer in Ethiopia: Evidence from Recent Experiences and Debating the Problems

1. Background The Ethiopian government has worked hard to reverse the country’s terrible history associated with a series of famines that ashamed of Ethiopians periodically since the 1970s.

Hunger, however, has once again re-visited Ethiopia this year, threatened the live of millions of Ethiopians and become the major news headline across the globe. Why Ethiopia unable to feed its population and thus continuing to depend on foreign donations of food to sustain millions of its citizens? Why a minor shocks as the 2008 failure of belg rain brought a significant impact on national food availability and hunger.

Despite some recent rapid growth of higher-value export crops such as coffee, livestock, and horticulture products, agricultural growth in Ethiopia remains unsatisfactory especially measured in terms of improving productivity in the cereal sector. The poor performance of the agricultural sector is unparalleled with its old history of institutionalized agricultural research and extension system in Africa. The formal beginnings of public agricultural research and extension in Ethiopia can be traced to the establishment of agricultural education establishments in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR) was established in 1966 with the formal mandate to formulate national agricultural research policy guidelines and undertake crops and livestock research. A major agricultural extension work began with the initiation of several package projects in the late 1960s and 1970s. It was thought that concentrating resources on the most promising regions would yield better results than spreading resources thinly over a larger area. The package consisted of mainly improved seeds, fertilizer and chemicals (Mulat, 1999). Since then, with the support of a variety of international institutions and donors a variety of agricultural development policies were experimented and several agricultural development programs and countless projects were implemented.

Most of recent agricultural development strategies and programs in Ethiopia are centred on fertilizer promotion, along with the provision of improved seeds, credit and farm management practices. Does these fertilizer-centred strategies worked? What is Ethiopia’s recent experience and challenges for increased and effective use of fertilizers? This paper will try to highlight some critical issues and debates the problems the country faced in its effort of enhancing the use of fertilizer in the smallholder sector.

2. Ethiopia’s recent experience with its fertilizer promotion strategy

Some 62 percent of the Ethiopian population is estimated to live in the moisture-reliant highlands . A core goal of the Ethiopian government agricultural strategy (ADLI) in recent years (since mid 1990s) was to raise cereal yields especially in moisture-reliant areas through a centralized and aggressive extension-based push focusing on technological packages that combined credit, fertilizers, improved seeds and better management practices. Following this strategy, fertilizer use has increased significantly (Byerlee et al, 2007).

Along with the new strategy, with support from the World Bank, the Ethiopian government formed a project to support for fertilizer market development in Ethiopia (Ethiopia National Fertilizer Project, ENFP) in 1992/93 with the aim of increasing agricultural production and productivity with an emphasis on fertilizer demand and supply, soil fertility management, and fertilizer policy reform. Since then, national fertilizer consumption increased almost three-times.

National fertilizer consumption at the beginning of the 1970s (when it was first introduced) and 1980s was about 950 and 43,200 tons, respectively (Tenkir et al, 2002). It increased to 250,000 tons (21 kg/ha) in 1995 and then to 323,000 tons (32 kg/ha) of product in 2004/05 . This growth of total fertilizer consumption was more rapid (i.e. it has been positive) than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) over the same period, and the average use of fertilizer per hectare was almost double the average for Sub-Saharan Africa (Crawford, Jayne, and Kelly 2006, see Byerlee et al, 2007) . This rapid improvement is partly due to the decision of the Ethiopian government allowing farmers to buy fertilizer with 100 percent credit in 19995 (Alemenh, 2003).

Although the strong push for intensification has resulted in higher use of fertilizer, the figures for Ethiopia are still low when compared to those in other countries that have successfully intensified cereal production in the past, particularly in Asia. On average, fertilizer application rate was 110 and 101 Kilogram per hectare of arable and permanent cropland in South Asia in 1999 and 2002, respectively; and 251 kg/ha and 257 kg/ha in China and only 16 kg/ha and 14 kg/ha in Ethiopia during the same years (Byerlee et al, 2007).This leads to low level of land productivity. Despite the availability of proven technologies , a recent study reported that cereal yields in Ethiopia are less than a quarter of the yields achieved in Asia during the green revolution (MoFED and UNDP, 2007).

The state-led policy formulated to push seed-fertilizer technologies has helped to improve fertilizer use per hectare . Fertilizer consumption per hectare, albeit encouraging growth in recent years associated partly to the extremely low use in base year and partly to improved policy support, however, has increased only marginally and remains much below the level recommended by agricultural researchers or to the international standard especially to those Asian countries that have successfully experienced the green revolution.

Given the precarious food situation and acute land scarcity in the country, fertilizer, modern seed and improved water and farm management, are critically important for intensifying grain production and boosting food production in Ethiopia. Based on extensive data collected from millions of demonstrations carried out through PADETES (3.6 million in 1999 alone), Howard et al. (2003) indicated that the adoption of seed-fertilizer technologies could more than double cereal yields and would be profitable to farmers in moisture-reliant areas.

A study by Mulat et al (1997) also indicates that one ton of fertilizer can yield 3-7 tons of additional grain in high potential areas. In general, the role of fertilizer in improving the declining nutritional status and productivity of Ethiopia’s soil is widely recognized. Then what are the challenges to strengthen smallholder access to fertilizer in general and its wide, effective, profitable and sustainable use in particular. Why the massive, state-led policy and program formulated to boost the use of fertilizer (seed-fertilizer) has only brought a marginal improvement in its use (especially in terms of use per hectare of farm land) and unnoticed impact in terms of improving cereal productivity and food security.

A number of factors seem to account for the low level use of fertilizer, low technical efficiency in fertilizer use and poor performance of agricultural productivity in the face of significant efforts at intensification and use of modern inputs. A lot of studies (e.g. Byerlee et al, 2007, Habtemariam, 2004, Mulat, 1999) have identified a number of contributing factors. Below is a major points emerged from review of these studies.

2.1 Technical factors

One major factor appears to be low technical efficiency in the use of the principle modern input, fertilizer. A recent analysis indicated that farmers are only achieving on average 60 percent of their potential production, given current levels of input use (World Bank 2006a, see Byerlee et al, 2007). As a result, fertilizer use may be yielding negative returns to many farmers, thereby resulting in stagnation of further intensification and significant rates of dis-adoption. This may be associated to farmers’ suboptimal use of fertilizer and lack of complementary inputs. Farmers don’t often go along with the recommended practices (100 kg DAPS and 100 kg Urea for most crops except for teff and Urea which requires 50 kg of DAP and 200 kg of Urea) but follows practices they can afford (often half the recommended rate). As a highly specialized input, the efficient use of fertilizer generally requires complementary inputs (e.g. improved varieties), as well as higher levels of management. Farmers might not optimally mix the required ingredients.

As soil erosion and land degradation are major causes for low productivity and vulnerability of smallholders, chemical fertilizer should be augmented with soil conservation practices and use of organic fertilizers. This is especially important in view of increasing fertilizer price and need for foreign currency the country needs to import it (Ethiopia imports all of its fertilizer). It is widely recognized among experts and policy makers that the increasing application of fertilizer at the current price will not be affordable to many farmers and possibly the Government (Ethiopia struggles to get the foreign exchange required to import fertilizer), extension and research should accord a high priority to find an economically viable option that uses fertilizer in combination with other local available organic sources (Alemenh, 2003).

2.2 Policy related factors

Distortions in the land market, lack of effective policy on population and low level of non-farm employment

Sub-economic holdings operated by poverty-stricken farmers are not favorable for widespread dissemination of new agricultural technology. Apart from the population pressure, the land policy has significantly contributed to subeconomic holdings and tenure insecurity. The average farm size in Ethiopia has declined to just one ha due to the rapidly growing population. Over one-third (46%) of the rural holdings are less than 0.5 ha. Given the low level of productivity, nearly all produce is devoted to home consumption for households with smaller plots. There is little surplus for investment and for input purchase. Empirical studies have also shown that the probability of adopting fertilizer and improved seeds decreases with decline in farm size (Croppenstedt, et al., 1998; Mulat et al., 1998; Wolday, 1998, see Mulat, 1999).

Since the 1975 land reform which made all rural land public property, the possession of land plots has been conditional upon residence in the village. The transfer of land through long-term lease or sales as well as the possibility to use land as collateral that will help to generate money for investment on land has been forbidden. This coupled with lack of effective policy on population and low level of non-farm employment has overcrowded the rural sector. Increasing population in the rural areas was thus absorbed in agriculture through leveling down of holdings, rather than through alternative forms of employment.

Fertilizer trade – government policy, undeveloped market and lack of private sector participation

According Byerlee et al (2007), Ethiopian fertilizer market lacks the participation of the private sector especially in recent years. When fertilizer market was liberalized in early 1990s, the initial response of the private sector to market liberalization was rapid. By 1996, several private firms were importing fertilizer, and 67 private wholesalers and 2,300 retailers made up a significant share of the domestic market. However, since 1999 the private sector that had initially responded to the reforms has largely exited the fertilizer market. In the case of imports, the share of private firms operating in the market went from 33 percent in 1995 to zero in 1999.

The decline of the private sector in the retail market was more dramatic. While private sector retailers held a majority share of the market in the early 1990s, the public sector and cooperatives have become almost the sole distributors of fertilizer since early 2000. As of 2004, the public sector accounted for over 70 percent of distribution, with private dealers accounting for only 7 percent of sales nationwide (DSA, 2006, EEA/EEPRI 2006, see Byerlee et al, 2007). The public sector supply channels have also changed; whereas extension agents initially managed distribution, the responsibility was shifted to local input supply offices in more recent years.

Byerlee et al (2007) indicates that the current government policy is to target at least 80 percent of fertilizer sales through cooperatives, which are eventually intended to replace the public sector involvement in retail distribution of fertilizers. This process, as with the importation process, tends to favor those firms or organizations with access to capital markets and experience in navigating the regulatory and administrative systems at both the federal and regional levels.

Despite some positive effect of the public-cooperative monopoly in the fertilizer trade especially from short-term perspective; in sum, the current system in Ethiopia is inefficient and unsustainable in the long run, and that it severely hinders the development of sound input markets and financial institutions in rural areas. Byerlee et al (2007) assess the overall performance of the current system in terms of price competitiveness, services provided, and fiscal and other costs to the public sector.

Price competitiveness

At first glance, fertilizer prices in Ethiopia are competitive. The margin between domestic and international prices is higher in Ethiopia than in Asian and Latin American countries, but comparable to the margin in other African countries, including South Africa. A comparison of the price build-up of fertilizer from port to farm gate indicates that marketing margins in Ethiopia are somewhat lower than those in comparable African countries, and that costs may have decreased over time with improvements in transportation.

Another way to measure this is to compare prices in Ethiopia with prices in comparable countries that are deemed to have a relatively dynamic fertilizer industry. By this measure, prices in Ethiopia do not seem to be out of line, and are in fact often lower than those in Kenya, a country where fertilizer use by smallholders is growing rapidly (Ariga, Jayne, and Nyoro 2006, Heisey and Norton 2006, see Byerlee et al, 2007). In reality, however, these apparently low prices reflect the peculiarities of the Ethiopian fertilizer markets. For example, a part of the cost-build up in fertilizer delivery does not show up in retail prices because the bottom end of the supply chain is essentially subsidized, with extension agents and cooperatives assuming the retailing functions.

Despite sustainability and effectiveness of the public/cooperative dominance in fertilizer market, a reasonably high price associated to private sector might not hinder improved use of fertilizer. A review of the situation in Kenya where fertilizer use by smallholders growing much rapidly, for instance, reveals that a dynamic private sector can promote smallholder use of fertilizer even when prices are relatively high (Ariga, Jayne, and Nyoro 2006). Moreover, there are no solid evidence on the competitiveness of fertilizer price between the public and private sector in Ethiopia .

Quality and dependability of services

Fertilizer prices represent only one dimension of market performance. The ability to provide the right type of input of good quality to farmers in a timely manner is equally important. Based on a study by Byerlee et al, 2007, some problems that might affect the use of fertilizer or its profitability in Ethiopia are listed below.

  • Unlike neighboring countries, Ethiopia does not offer fertilizer in smaller packages or different formulations needed for non-cereal crops. The distribution system in Ethiopia is inflexible, providing only two types of fertilizer, both in 50 kg bags.
  • Moreover, numerous farmers in recent years (as many as half in some regions) have consistently reported late delivery of fertilizer. About 12 to 46 percent of farmers received fertilizer late, depending on the region. Many farmers also complained that bags were underweight, and 30 percent of farmers in two regions registered a negative response on quality.

    A study conducted in 2004 (Bonger et al, 2004) also reinforced these findings, reporting that half of farmers noted that the fertilizer arrived after planting, 32 percent reported underweight bags, 25 percent indicated poor quality, and almost 40 percent reported that their planting was delayed by fertilizer problems. Most recently, fertilizer quality problems had been reduced but delays in delivery were still common—25 percent or more of farmers complained of late delivery. Timely availability of fertilizer is critical in rainfed agriculture; fertilizer applied late causes it to be unprofitable, while delayed planting can incur even higher costs.

  • Beyond fiscal costs, there are also considerable but non-quantifiable implicit costs in the system, many of which are borne by the government through its input supply parastatal and administrative offices. These include the costs resulting from the “central planning” system of estimation of demand by extension agents at the local level and then aggregation at the national level as the basis for allocation import permits. This understandably results in substantial inefficiencies due to the lack of a market clearing mechanism. The indirect costs also include the storage costs and quality deterioration incurred because closing stocks have comprised 50 percent or more of total consumption in most years except in 2004 and 2005. Kenya, which has a fully private sector supply, has an inter-annual carryover average of less than 10 percent. Finally, the implicit costs include those resulting from damage done to extension-farmer relationships when and if extension agents participated to ensure fertilizer loan repayment.
  • Furthermore, fertilizer is tied to credit programs and fed by government targets for fertilizer consumption at the local, regional and national levels.
    • This may result in the promotion of fertilizer where it is not profitable, and could explain the negative returns to fertilizer noted above. It may also tend to create moral hazards among farmers with respect to careful use of credit, and may discourage the development of their skills in independent financial management.
    • In addition, input distribution tied to credit tends to limit the space available for the emergence of private sector retailers. Thus, those farmers with sufficient resources to purchase fertilizer for cash, often on more favorable terms than on credit, are unable to do so since there are very few private traders. This problem is compounded by the exit of private firms and the rise of party-affiliated companies and cooperatives—a situation that is widely perceived as reflecting the lack of a level playing field in the agricultural input sector.
    • Similarly, the guaranteed loan program with below-market interest rates creates an un-level playing field in the rural finance sector by undermining efforts to set up alternative institutions such as MFIs, branches of commercial banks, or independent financial cooperatives.
    • There are also high fiscal costs and fiscal risks associated with the guaranteed loan program. The write-off to loan guarantees amounted to Ethiopian birr (ETB) 84 million in 2001, but by 2005 liabilities had again accumulated to ETB 183 million (DSA 2006). Also in 2005, the Oromiya Region was obliged to pay out approximately ETB 84 million to the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia to honor its guarantees for the previous three-year time period. The guarantee thus becomes a subsidy that is not accounted for in government budgeting.

2.3 Institutional factors

The aforementioned problems that could hinder the extensive and efficient of fertilizer might be reflection of institutional weakness. Institutions working to improve the use and profitability of fertilizer use might face various problems like lack required financial and manpower resources. Weakness of these institutions in their internal administration and coordination among various institutions (extension, research and government) might also contribute. Following is a variety of problems related to institutional weaknesses that have hindered wide and more effective use of modern inputs in general and fertilizer in particular in the Ethiopian smallholder sector.

  • Adoption of conventional, top-down approach in agricultural extension that established a bureaucratic structure for the regular transmission of pre-determined technical messages from subject matter specialists to farmers. The hierarchical “culture” underlying the extension system does little to encourage and exploit the inherent resourcefulness of those who work closely with farmers and rural communities. Farming communities do not participate in extension planning, and the extension agents remain largely conveyors of technical messages, rather than active facilitators of community capacity building and providers of relevant information.
  • Low and unbalanced public investment between agricultural research and extension. Unlike many other developing countries, Ethiopia continues to invest heavily in its public sector-led agricultural extension system in order to implement the recent intensification program. But it drains resources that could be used else where more productively. Byerlee et al, 2007, for instance, reported that the public investment to the recent extension program, excluding the much larger expenditure on food security programs, amounted to over $50 million dollars annually or almost 2 percent of agricultural GDP in recent years. This was four to five times the investment in agricultural research.
  • Frequent restructuring of MoA – Since mid 1970s, MoA has undergone through at least ten major restructuring processes. It is worth mentioning here that evidences are difficult to find that would indicate that such restructuring measures were made based on commissioned studies evaluating previous organizational structures nor are there any measurable performance indicators suggested to monitor that the new structures would perform better. One could say that the organization of extension kept on changing because of leaders own intuitions, and not based on evaluation and assessment. This negatively affects continuity of programs and increases instability of staff which, in turn, affects the provision and sustainable use of modern inputs like fertilizer (Habtemariam, 2004).

In addition to institutional instability, weak financial and administrative capacity that lead to poor extension planning and monitoring system might have weaken the effectiveness of the extension system and indirectly, extensive, effective and sustainable use of fertilizer and other modern inputs among the small farmers (Habtemariam, 2004).


There is widely held view that poverty reduction in Ethiopia is impossible without significant growth in crop yields for major staples. Recent developments , however, depicts the enormous challenge the agricultural sector faced to satisfy national food requirement and help in reducing poverty. A recent study by Diao and Pratt (2007) shows that significant poverty reductions in Ethiopia could be achieved by prioritizing investment in improving cereals and other food staples productivity relative to both traditional and non-traditional export crops (see Byerlee et al, 2007).

The recent rapid growth of higher-value export crops especially cut flower (but to lesser degree other crops like coffee, livestock, and horticulture products) indicate the central role of government policy to improve agricultural production and productivity. Cheap and guaranteed access to farm land, financial resources and other incentives including duty free import of agricultural technologies and tax-holiday for investors help for rapid growth of the horticulture sector. To boost cereal production among other through extensive, effective and sustainable use of fertilizer, improved seeds and farm management practices, Ethiopian policy makers to reconsider their policy. The food sector needs a comparable but different kind of policy attention.

Any intervention to improve sustainable and effective use of fertilizer and other modern technologies should be holistic; systematic that could address a range factors discussed earlier. At the final analysis, productivity is a technical/technological problem but the intervention required to improve smallholders’ access to farm technologies and their efficient and sustainable use should not necessarily be implementing a technology-led extension program. If that is the case, Ethiopia’s over 4 decades experience should have made Ethiopian smallholders’ major users of modern farm technologies and alleviate the widespread structural food deficits and a chronic dependence on food aid.

Of course, technology required for enhancing productivity could be internationally available or generate domestically. Government policy and donors financial assistance to widely diffuse existing or new technologies (e.g. fertilizers and improved seeds) to areas with low productivity is only one aspect of the problem in a complex institutional, social and political environment. The exclusive concentration given to technology as a determinant of productivity in theory and the effectiveness of such a concentration in increasing productivity in practice in countries such as Ethiopia should be revisited. While technology is important, the whole social structure of the growth process needs to be considered to effect durable productivity enhancement and sustainable use of modern farm technologies like fertilizers and improved seeds.

It would be better, therefore, for Ethiopian policy makers and donors, to change their approach in dealing with the problem the country faced in promoting the use of fertilizer and its effective and sustainable use. Among others, they should refrain from making any specific recommendation (to improve farmers access to modern inputs such as fertilizer (e.g. subsidy)) before identifying and studying the whole gamut of factors that affect decisions by farmers, including the incentive structure, institutional configuration, governance and risk behaviour patterns.


Alemenh Dejene (2003). Integrated Natural Resources Management to Food Security. The Case for Community Based Approaches in Ethiopia. Environment and Natural Resources, Working Paper No. 16, FAO.

Byerlee, Derek; Spielman, David J; Dawit Alemu and Gauta Madhur (2007). Policies to Promote Cereal Intensification in Ethiopia: A Review of Evidence and Experience. IFPRI Discussion Paper 00707. June 2007.

Bonger, T., G. Ayele, and T. Kumsa. 2004. Agricultural extension, adoption and diffusion in Ethiopia. Research Report 1. Addis Ababa: Ethiopian Development Research Institute.

CSA (2007). Report on Area and Production of crops. Agricultural Sample Survey 2006/2007. Private Peasant holdings, Meher season. Volume I. Statistical Bulletin 388. Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.

EEA (2002). Second Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy. Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.

UNOCHA (2002). Review and Consequences of Reduction in Agricultural Input Sales in 2002. A Situation Analysis, November 2002.

Jeanette Sutherland (2006). Fertilizer Toolkit: Ethiopia National Fertilizer Sector Project (1996 – 2002).

FAO/WFP (2008). Special Report: Crop and Food Security Assessment Mission to Ethiopia. (Phase One). January 2008).

Habtemariam Kassa (2004). Historical Developments and Current Challenges of Agricultural Extension with Particular Emphasis on Ethiopia. A Review Contributed to the EEA/EEPRI study on the Evaluation of PADETES.

Howard, J., E. Crawford, V. Kelly, M. Demeke, and J. J. Jeje. 2003. Promoting high-input maize technologies in Africa: The Sasakawa-Global 2000 experience in Ethiopia and Mozambique. Food Policy 28: 335–348.

MoFED and UNDP (2007). A Review of Ethiopia’s Economic Performance (1995 to 2005) and the Human Development Outcomes and Issues. Paper Presented at Consensus Building Workshop for National Human Development Report (NHDR), Ethiopia. Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.

Mulat Demeke (1999). Agricultural Technology, Economic Viability And Poverty Alleviation In Ethiopia. Paper Presented to the Agricultural Transformation Policy Workshop Nairobi, Kenya 27-30 June 1999

Tenkir Bonger, Eleni Gabre-Madhin and Suresh Babu (2002). Agricultural Technology Diffusion and Price Policy. Proceedings of a Policy Forum in Addis Abeba, March 25, 2002. Ethiopian Development Research Institute and International Food Policy Research Institute. 2020 Vision Network for East Africa, Report 1, June 2002.

Samuel Gebreselassie, Researcher
Ethiopian Economic Policy Research Institute (EEPRI)

Rob Tripp
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

First, the authors of the document should be congratulated for providing such a thoughtful and comprehensive summary of the issues.

The document describes a number of “models”, many of which have made some contribution, and it correctly points out that virtually all are being promoted to some extent at the present time.

In the face of limited success from past efforts we are asked, “Are things different now?” The document answers in the affirmative, but this can be debated. One thing that hasn’t changed is that a number of well-meaning development agencies, institutes, researchers, etc are still hoping to see a comprehensive plan fashioned from disparate interests and initiatives. Although some of the vocabulary inevitably changes, we are still lining up to march behind our chosen banner, be it “integrated soil fertility”, “innovation systems”, “smart subsidies” ,or whatever. And the fact that donors have large amounts of money they want (or in some cases are obliged) to spend may be a mixed blessing.

Surely part of the explanation for only modest success in the past is precisely that these have largely been special initiatives, introduced from outside. They usually pay little attention to the long-term capacities of the people meant to manage them or to the abilities of farming populations to have any influence over what their governments (or external agencies) provide. In addition, they usually bypass any examination of exactly what proportion of the African rural population has enough interest in, or income from, farming to elicit realistic commitment. Thus it might be argued that the specifics of a soil fertility plan should be postponed until there are coherent investments in developing more general policy capacity, political responsiveness, and rural organization. But donors are generally not set up to address these more basic issues, and the development industry has difficulty reaping rewards from long-term capacity building.

It is difficult to see how effective soil fertility policies will arise in the midst of more general inefficiencies in African agricultural economies. This is not meant to dismiss the questions asked at the end of the document about specific design principles related to soil fertility management. They are certainly relevant, but it is a challenge to see how they can be debated in the abstract. If we wish to avoid the disappointments of other failed programs and plans addressing African soil fertility management, it may be best for us to turn our attention inward, and to ask if our own development profession (as currently structured) can offer solutions, or is part of the problem. An integrated approach to soil fertility certainly makes sense, but is unlikely to be achieved as long as donors are not capable of an integrated approach to the development of basic national capacities. Without this, we may simply be entering another round of competition to collect rents from pilot projects and fruitless discussions about scaling up.

Rob Tripp, Research Associate
Overseas Development Institute

Willem A. Stoop
January 22, 2010 / Soil Fertility

Major recent studies about the problems of African soils and consequently the low agricultural production have all recognised two generalised, yet paramount, problems:

  • Low to very low soil fertility levels as compared with the other major agricultural production areas in the world, caused by low active-clay and soil organic matter contents, resulting into low nutrient retention / buffering capacities, often in combination with multiple nutrient deficiencies and nutrient imbalances that are readily induced  and aggravated by prolonged use of mineral fertilizers of standardised nutrient compositions.
  • A large variability / diversity in soils over short distances (i.e. within farms and individual fields).

These two major problems cannot possibly be handled through standardised type technological solutions like seeds of so called improved varieties, agricultural chemicals (mineral fertilizers in particular) and increased availability of water. And yet these are the major aspects, that have been highlighted albeit unsuccessfully in the past through ambitious projects like T&V, SG 2000 and currently again through the “Millennium Villages Project” and “Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa”.

Currently the issue of soil health is being emphasized increasingly as a component of technological approaches like “conservation agriculture / no-till systems”, “integrated soil fertility management”, “the system of rice intensification (SRI)” among others. These are laudable developments, that contribute to viewing soils as dynamic and living systems in which the combination of organic matter and soil (micro)biology are crucial (at a par with the conventional physical and chemical soils’ parameters) in ensuring the long term sustainability of soil productivity and of agricultural production processes that rely upon it.

However, in spite of  the scientific rational / logic of the various integrated approaches, these remain surrounded by combinations of (scientific) controversies, originating from differing ideas about what types of paradigms to promote, unresolved research questions, including effectiveness and efficiency issues, as well as by practical constraints associated with field implementation of such approaches under diverse farming conditions. Therefore long term support for research (national and international), conducted by well-trained, and adequate numbers of scientists pursuing the soil fertility issues holistically instead of through short term silver bullet type responses, still remains a basic requirement for achieving progress.

Within the context of the major development campaigns / projects referred to above, also the introduction of integrated approaches as blueprints, are bound to encounter a mixed response from farmers, simply because the practical implications of points 1 and 2 above have not been thought through adequately. Obviously, any farmer and professional field agronomist / extension agent will be aware of these two problems and consequently of the limitations of the large scale approaches / technologies proposed by academics, (international) development experts and policymakers who are not exposed regularly to the practical field realities of farming. In short the ever increasing gap between “theory” and “reality”, and the corresponding “intertwining of scientific, commercial and political interests”, is likely to remain a serious stumbling block for improving African soils and their agricultural productivity.

Where do the preceding observations lead us in terms of policy frameworks in support of agricultural production by African nations? Firstly one has to face the fact that nearly all African governments have seriously neglected their respective agricultural sectors up to the point that it is unattractive for the average farmer to make any investment in his/her farm beyond what is required for the immediate survival of his/her family. Consequently there are no or highly inadequate emergency food buffers build up at national level to counter natural and other calamities. Secondly this situation is compounded by unfavourable international trade conditions (e.g. heavily subsidized production and dumping of excess production from the North; until recently, cheap rice imports from Asia and; etc.) which in the absence of adequate government trade / economic policies have undermined the domestic production capacity in most African countries.

Rectifying the situation will depend first and foremost on national governments getting their policies “right” in support for their respective agricultural sectors with regard to trade, infrastructural investments and adequate support for building and maintaining a stable agricultural technology R&D capacity based on a socially appropriate vision for rural development and agricultural production. In the absence of such national vision and policies, it is unlikely that external assistance programs and short term ad-hoc projects can contribute to sustainable improvements in soil systems and agriculture productivity, apart from providing poor “emergency aid”.

For national and international agricultural development interventions to be effective (i.e. to deal with the introductory points 1 and 2) they should be soundly and solidly anchored at local levels, in other words “bottom-up” and “participatory” approaches are a pre-condition. In addition, the implementing parties (i.e. farmers, research and development personnel) should be provided with considerable flexibility to test, adjust and adapt various practices and innovations to local conditions and needs, instead of being supervised strictly for achieving predetermined implementation targets for a standard recipe, and for writing meaningless journal articles. These conditions are, however, not self-evident since the average scientist and politician (irrespective of nationality) tends to operate in top-down, authoritarian fashions, often having been trained academically to believe that they know what is best.

In conclusion the points made by Prof. William Easterly1. become highly relevant in this debate, in particular that external (technical and financial) support to African countries should be piece-meal and should be built on / reinforce national capacities and initiatives that meet the dual requirements of being anchored at local levels, while being enhanced (rather than blocked) by national government policies.

1. Easterly, W., 2006. The White Men’s Burden. Penguin Publications, London.

Willem A. Stoop
Centre for Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA)

Johan Helland
January 22, 2010 / Pastoralism in crisis?

A central proposition in studies of pastoralism is that pastoral systems have been successful through time because they have been able to adjust both the animal and human populations that they contain against the resources available. The mechanisms involved in this adjustment have varied: in eastern Africa military expansion has historically been important, but outright population crashes have also been documented. In western Africa and in the Middle East pastoralism is more closely integrated with sedentary agriculture and an urban-based trading economy. Barth’s classic study of the Basseri, for instance, shows how Basseri pastoralism sheds off both winners and losers to the encompassing society. One way of characterising contemporary pastoral systems is that they have lost this property, which has been central to the survival of pastoralism at the systemic level.

This view to a large extent depends on treating pastoralism as a clearly bounded system, where it was clear who belonged inside and outside the system. Up to the great Sahelian drought of 1973/74 the pastoral communities in eastern Africa were more or less left to their own devices. Since then the pastoral communities have been increasingly drawn into the orbit of the nation-states in the region, for better or for worse. Relations with the surrounding nation-states have not always been benign, but there have been benefits (often short-term, such a famine relief) as well as long-term costs. As the pastoral systems are opened up it has become increasingly difficult to determine who the pastoralists are. The classic definitions that pastoralists are those who derive 50% or 80% or all their income from animal production no longer seem to be very useful. All kinds of combinations, depending on the opportunities that have presented themselves in the rapidly changing contexts of pastoralism can now be found in the areas that used to contain autonomous pastoral production systems.

Perhaps the ‘pure pastoralist’ has never existed; – people living in the dry lowlands of eastern Africa have always have had to make use of whatever opportunities they can find. Detailed reading of the ethnography often reveals a far greater range and diversity of economic activity than what we initially assume. This is still these case, but perhaps now even more so. Raising livestock is becoming increasingly difficult and actually depending on livestock production for a living is a less and less realistic livelihood strategy. Livestock production is now but one of the many things that go on in the drylands and pastoralism as a way of life is quickly disappearing. If people can make a better, more secure, more stable, more predictable living from doing these other things, perhaps we should not even regret this change.

The problem is of course that people very often are not better off! It is possible to argue for the intrinsic value of pastoralism in terms of it being the only sensible way of exploiting the resources across vast tracts of land, in terms of it being a way of life that is fulfilling to many people. Pastoralism in these terms depends on a number of preconditions that have disappeared, or are in the process of disappearing, and it is now highly unlikely that they ever will be restored. The situation can very well be summed up, as Stephen Sandford does, as ‘too many people, too few cows’.

The pastoral way of life will probably never be fully restored, but the drylands can perhaps still offer a source of livelihood for a comparatively large number of people. It has always been difficult to determine exactly how many people can be accommodated, particularly if it is true that the pastoral systems can no longer shed off the excess. Arguments about the intrinsic value of pastoralism has led to policies attempting to reinsert ‘failed’ pastoralists back into the system (through restocking schemes etc), but these solutions have been short-term, at best. If pastoralism is to survive as an economically sensible and culturally valuable way of life, it can only do so by limiting the number of people who make a living from pastoral livestock production. That means that alternatives must be found for the population that in these terms becomes an excess population. The notion that we can best help pastoralism survive by concentrating on policy alternatives outside pastoralism, policies that will siphon people away from pastoralism is counterintuitive and difficult. But it seems to be the only way. The policy options of expanding opportunities and maximising social and economic mobility (with long-term investments in education in particular), as outlined by Devereaux and Scoones, should be fully supported. This is not a policy prescription for pastoral development as such, but for development in the drylands and the people who live in the drylands. Perhaps this shift in perspective is required.

Johan Helland
Senior Researcher, Chr. Michelsen Institute