The future of farming in Africa
“Who will produce our food in the future?” Ken Giller, professor Plant Production Systems at Wageningen University, asks out loudly during a presentation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs on June 5, 2018. According to the Food Security Report 2017 1, it’s the first time in 13 years that food insecurity increased globally – and the primary reason is conflict. Demand for food is increasing due to a growing global population, in urban and rural areas, and increasing wealth. By 2030 we have to feed an extra billion people and the strongest population growth is in Africa. “The potential to close yield gaps in Africa is massive, but we struggle with the conundrum of how to do this. It asks for policy that doesn’t exist at the moment”, Giller says, “this is what I frame as the Food Security Conundrum”.
Answers in mainstream family farming systems
Currently, farmers in Africa have yields only 10-20% of the total possible production. Their systems are challenged by low land availability, high population density and low capital availability. Using data from 13,000 rural households across 93 locations in 17 countries of sub-Saharan Africa we find that 40% of the households are food insecure 2. They are neither self-sufficient nor do they have a decent standard of living, an income that provides them with nutrition, shelter, health, education and a small margin. Agriculture can help to provide both food for the family and more income if they are able to close their yield gap. Giller’s research shows that good agronomy and fertilizers are a key part of the answers to increase yield. This means that policy should not focus on idealized agro-ecological or organic farming systems, but should use all of the tools available within conventional or “mainstream’ farming to enhance production.
Technology, a sustainable farm size and off-farming income
The knowledge of how to close the yield gaps is available, but farmers are challenged in taking up new technologies. They will only invest in agriculture if they see direct benefits. Therefore Giller started the programme N2Africa: Putting Nitrogen Fixation to Work for Smallholder Farmers in Africa (www.N2Africa.org) working with more than 800,000 farmers in eleven countries across East, West and southern Africa to reap the benefits of investing in their soils. Their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere can enhance agricultural productivity of grain legumes and other sequential crops. Increased productivity leads to improved household’s food and nutrition security and the opportunity to sell grain legumes as cash crops to improve household income.
The programme is looking for what works, where, why and for whom to make farmers food secure. Firstly, the research shows that best-fit technologies are essential for farmers to close yield gaps. Poorer farmers, having little land, poor soils and lack of inputs, have different constraints and thus need different technologies to increase their productivity than wealthier farmers. This approach booked results. “Poorer farmers have fewer and shorter stakes of poor quality to grow climbing beans. We integrated agroforestry in these systems. In Rwanda, 90% of the farmers we worked with benefited from these best fit technologies while planting climbing beans”, Giller explains.
The second finding of the research is that a sustainable farm size is needed to ensure that closing the yield gap results in farmers reaching the poverty line or living income. This remains a challenge. “Farmers in Tanzania for example need over 15 hectares to reach a living income with farming, while households in some of the regions where we work in Tanzania have less than 1 hectare of land currently”, Giller illustrates. Thus agriculture is not a lucrative business. “Farming alone cannot lift all farmers in Africa out of the poverty trap”, Giller states.
The third finding of the research is the importance of off-farming income to have the ability to invest in one’s farm. “For example, the wealthier farmers we interviewed in Tanzania have 1 or 2 family members working in the cities sending remittances. They use this money to invest in their farm. This is key for us to understand which farmers have the potential to intensify their staple crop production”, Giller states.
Inspiration from Dutch policies
The growing African population needs to be fed. There are three intersecting origins for the conundrum. Firstly, national food security requires an abundant supply of cheap and nutritious food for the burgeoning urban population. Secondly, food should be produced in-country, because agriculture is a major contributor to the balance of payments for African economies. Lastly, rural households need sufficient land and economic incentives to invest in agriculture. So enhanced food production should happen within an agricultural landscape which is slowly changing with the emergence of larger farms and increasing land prices.
Africa needs an agricultural transformation driven by sustainable intensification. An unambiguous answer how this should be done does not exist, but policy makers in Africa can be inspired by policies that were put in place in the Netherlands by Dutch farmer and politician Sicco Mansholt in the 1950s. These policies made the country self-sufficient and turned Dutch farming into a motor for economic growth. They resulted in a reduced number of small farms, consolidated fragmented land and modernized agriculture. However, while establishing policies, policy makers should take into account the importance of providing sufficient technologies and the need of farmers to diversify their cropping system to become self-sufficient. Lastly, policy makers should keep in mind the close link between the city and investments in the farm. “After all, urban employment and rural development are interdependent – they go hand in hand and strengthen each other to promote sustainable agriculture”, Giller concludes.
- 1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP & WHO, (2017) The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World. Building resilience for peace and food security. FAO, Rome.
- 2. Frelat, R., Lopez-Ridaura, S., Giller, K.E., Herrero, M., Douxchamps, S., Djurfeldt, A.A., Erenstein, O., Henderson, B., Kassie, M., Paul, B.K., Rigolot, C., Ritzema, R.S., Rodriguez, D., van Asten, P.J.A., van Wijk, M.T., (2016). Drivers of household food availability in sub-Saharan Africa based on big data from small farms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, 458–463.