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Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Future of Africa's Agriculture is in the Small Farm

Climate change, rapid population growth and urbanization present the most daunting challenge to meeting the goal of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty in Sub Saharan Africa. The so-called experts, mostly non-African, have urged for modernization of African agriculture through a wider adoption of application of fertilizers, use of hybrid seeds and irrigation. These experts have also argued for the transformation of smallholder production systems to middle and large-scale industrial scale agriculture to meet the growing demand for food. Africa must have a Green Revolution, the Asian style.

I argue that in the face of adverse climate impacts and declining per capita land holdings, an Asian style Green Revolution is not the universal panacea to Africa’s chronic hunger and malnutrition. Moreover, the coupling of fertilizers prices with the volatility of global fossil fuel markets as well as heightened consumer preference for organic foods presents a new and unprecedented opportunity for recognition and global significance for Africa’s smallholder production systems. The future of Africa’s agriculture is inextricably bound with the plight of the under-resourced smallholder farm families who toil in the forgotten corners and remote villages of the continent.

The image of African children starving and dying from hunger and malnutrition is certainly emotive and swiftly moves the international community to compassionate action. Given the excruciating spectacle of death and hunger, it is easy to argue that low input, low productivity rain-fed small farm agricultural production systems are the culprit and must be replaced with production systems that utilize fertilizers, high yielding hybrid seeds, pesticides and irrigation.

Smallholder African agriculture is widely perceived as backward, unproductive and inefficient because most agronomists and agricultural economists do not understand how it works. The complex agro-ecological balance achieved by the complex integration of cereals, legumes and livestock reflect an intuitive mimicry of the natural environment. The so-called modern high input farming techniques must not be intended to supplant but supplement traditional, ecological practices of African agriculture.

Approaches that apply agro-ecological principles and tap into indigenous knowledge systems practiced by thousands of farmers have been shown to enhance food security while conserving biodiversity, and soil and water resources throughout hundreds of rural communities in Eastern and Southern Africa.

The household food security, poverty alleviation and climate resilience benefits of diversified and complex smallholder African agriculture are not well understood. Smallholder production systems must be supported with research, extension and financial services as a significant part of the solution to hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa. How many people must go hungry while we are busy testing new fancy approaches for African agriculture before we start supporting farming systems already tested and proven to benefit the poor?

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