As world leaders, researchers, businesses, communities and development partners prepare for the UN Food Systems Summit in September, some experts say that African farmers offer unique lessons for the future of resilient and sustainable food production.
“We already have sufficient knowledge among African communities on the ground,” says Million Belay, the general coordinator at the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA). “But companies have locked everyone in a (closed) system.”
The biggest problem, he argues, is that agricultural policies in Africa are often geared towards producing more and more food, and as a result the needs of the African farmer are often neglected.
“As a result, African farmers have ended up pumping tons and tons of agro-chemicals including synthetic fertilisers into the soils, and this has adversely affected the soil health,” he says.
At the same time, many African countries have overlooked indigenous farmer-managed seed systems, despite farmers in rural communities across Africa still attaching value to them. However, Belay says that projects are helping several communities to support indigenous seed-systems and the local production of bio-fertilisers.
“Most researchers across the continent are concentrating only on seeds that enhance productivity and they forget those peculiar characteristics that African farmers are looking for. As much as governments have promoted those high-yielding seeds, farmers in all African countries still protect different types of seeds that may not be high yielding, but have traits that farmers consider to be more important than just high yields,” he says.
Some of the seeds that African farmers use have been proven to be resilient to tough climatic conditions, pests and diseases, and can be replanted over and over again, he says. In Ethiopia, according to Belay, the government collaborated with local farmers in rural areas to identify important farmer-managed seeds. Through research institutions in the country, the seeds have been bulked, while others have been improved for better yields.
An organisation known as ReSCOPE is promoting community seed systems in Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia as a critical response and a way to build resilience in the face of climate change.
The issue of local seed systems is intimately connected to the community production of appropriate bio-fertilisers. In Uganda’s northwestern Amuru district, Omer Farming Company is growing rice on a large scale without using synthetic fertilisers. On 5,000 acres of land, the company is growing upland rice with a yield of up to 3.5 tonnes per acre using environmentally friendly methods.
“We do not plough the field, and we do not use fertilisers,” says Dominic Kimara, the farm manager at the company. “Instead, we grow a leguminous crop known as sunn hemp, and when it is 50% flowering, we roll it on the ground so that it can decompose and form green manure,” he says.
The Rural Initiatives Development Programme (RIDEP) in Marimanti, in Kenya’s semi-arid Tharaka Nithi County, runs training workshops for local farmers to make bio-fertilisers using locally available environment-friendly materials. RIDEP is a community-based organisation formed by local residents to enhance development, ease the burden of food security and poverty, and improve the environment.
A compound housing the RIDEP offices has demo plots that are flourishing with leafy vegetables, arrowroots, sweet potatoes, carrots, sorghum and pigeon peas as well as legumes, chillies, bananas, fruit trees and other crops.
“This is an example of how typical African farmers used to live, and that is the glory we are trying to bring back,” says Zachary Makanya, chief executive officer at RIDEP. “With just a half an acre piece of land, we have enough food to support a family of seven throughout the year, giving them sufficient proteins, vitamins, carbohydrates and necessary minerals.”
On the same piece of land, there is a section for the production of different types of bio-fertilisers that include animal manure, plant manure, compost manure, vermi-liquid – which is extracted from earthworms – and bokashi, which is a fermented organic matter.
At RIDEP, bokashi is made using rice husks, yeast, molasses, rock dust, charcoal dust and topsoil. The product is a topdressing bio-fertiliser used to restore the soil structure to its original form. Less than 100km away, in Murang’a County, another group of farmers through an organisation known as Organic Agriculture Centre of Kenya (OACK) are producing and selling a bio-fertiliser called Black Gold.
“A farmer needs just a handful of this fertiliser to plant a crop like maize, and the yields are amazing,” says Stephen Wainaina, executive director at OACK. “Farmers have tried it and they keep coming for it every planting season.”
“These are some of the things that African governments need to consider during forums like the UN Food Systems Summit, in order to have African problems being subjected to local solutions that are friendly to the environment and are acceptable to the African farmers,” says Makanya of RIDEP.
The need for better markets
While the debate over local seed varieties and hybrid solutions continues to play out, Gerald Masila, executive director at the Eastern Africa Grain Council, says that for the continent to be food secure there is also a need to address the issue of markets.
“The truth is that at any given time, there is a community on the continent which is starving due to a failed season and yet, during the same season, another community is throwing away food because of the lack of a market,” he says.
In the same vein, most African countries find it easier to import food from far away when immediate neighbours have food rotting in stores, but they cannot easily transport it just across the border because of punitive trade barriers.
The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), the largest trading bloc in the world, with the majority of African countries now operating under its preferential trade framework established by the African Union Commission, could help to change the trend, but there is also a need for information systems, technology and new transportation routes to link diverse markets across the continent.