Significant global financial resources are flowing to sub-Saharan Africa, where the international community has set ambitious goals for ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition among smallholder farmers through increasing agricultural productivity. In my view, yields and profits alone cannot guarantee sustainable gains in income and nutrition for smallholder farmers.
Moreover, smallholder agriculture is highly dependent on services from nature. I therefore argue for a new approach to supporting Africa’s agriculture: without concerted investments in a diagnostic and monitoring framework to track changes in ecosystem services and human wellbeing, the gains in food production are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run.
I remember a visit in June 2011 with a feisty grandmother. Ann is 75 years old and barely ekes out a living on a family farm. She happily ventured to give me a tour of her half-acre estate. We stopped at a vantage point, a little mound on the edge the farm, for a picturesque view of her field and the village beyond.
Like all her neighbors, Ann’s field was planted with corn. Grass thatched and iron-roofed homes looked like islands in a sea of pale or yellowish-green corn. In the middle of the growing season the corn was thin and with spindly stalks, barely one meter tall.
Ann narrated memories of the land through her three-quarters of a century on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. She talked about the fatigued soils and poor yields, barren soils and scarlet rivers, dusty fields and denuded hills, scarlet rivers and flush floods. She remembered her youthful years five decades ago as a fish trader, when the water was clear, fish was abundant, the hilltops were green and lush and harvests plentiful.
“There is just to many of us”, Ann quipped. “All of us scrambling for space to live, land to grow food and pasture for our livestock. We work a lot harder for much less to eat and to nothing to save for a rainy day. Maybe this land is no longer capable of supporting all of us. The large trees, the colorful birds and animals of my grandmother’s stories are no longer here. It is a very different world”.
My knowing gaze rested on a bare patch, which exposed what could be the root cause of the withered corn. The earth’s fragile skin, the soil, was gravely wounded and pale, drained of all vital minerals. Galleys scarred the landscape, evidence of sustained hemorrhaging of fertile soils.
Ann’s story is shared by hundreds of millions of farmers like across the sub-Saharan Africa. Africa’s smallholder agricultural systems have inadvertently degraded vital ecosystem services flood protection, water supply and soil nutrient cycling. Paradoxically Africa’s smallholder production systems depend on essential natural capital; the ecosystem services generated at multiple spatial scales.
The portrait that Ann paints of the situation in her community is complex and demands integrated landscape level approaches. However, much existing knowledge base and solution approaches are sectoral and rely on evidence that is assembled at the plot or farm level and within narrow disciplinary domains. As such, policy makers and landowners often must make important land use and land management decisions based on partial and incomplete understanding of landscape level interactions and feedback.
To make sound policy and decisions on sustainable land use and land management, systems-level evidence and systems-level understanding is critical. Currently there is no systems-level understanding or agreement on indicators to track systems-level change. Moreover, there is no integrated framework for long-term monitoring in place to simultaneously track changes in vital system components, including land productivity and household wellbeing.
A fundamental question underlies Africa’s socio-economic and environmental sustainability: How can smallholder farmers increase land productivity, profitability and human wellbeing outcomes without causing irreparable damage to ecosystem services?
What Africa needs to address this question is an integrated diagnostic and monitoring framework to generate data and information at appropriate spatial scales to support decision making at national policy and farm household level. Such a monitoring framework would need a minimum set of indicators relevant for assessment of interactions and feedback among land productivity, soil and plant health, biodiversity, water quality and human wellbeing.
The indicators suggested here can generate the integrated knowledge needed to support evidence-based decisions to guide investments in agricultural development while sustaining flows of vital ecosystem services. Moreover, a diagnostic and monitoring system would serve three critical purposes: provide integrated evidence-based policy relevant information; establish the framework for sustained monitoring and delivery of real time data to farmers and policy makers; and integrated and analytical framework to evaluate tradeoffs and feedback to inform anticipatory and adaptive management.
I believe that a diagnostic and monitoring capability can be harnessed to provide anticipatory and adaptive decision support framework. This will minimize environmental impacts and enhance systems-level resilience, so that food security and wellbeing of farmers like Ann and millions like her across sub-Saharan Africa can be enhanced in a sustainable manner.