East Africa: Farmers Adapting but Food Insecurity Persists, Researcher Says

Photo: P. Casier/CGIAR
Farming the land with the help of cattle in Kenya.

Washington, DC — About a year after East Africa's worst drought in six decades peaked, a survey of more than 700 smallholder farmers across four regional countries reveals that food insecurity remains a pressing problem.

The study, by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, also shows that farmers have been adopting innovative agricultural techniques for the past decade, but food insecurity continues to limit their adaptability.

More than half of all households surveyed are implementing strategies to improve crop production and cope with climate change, researchers say. However, many of these modifications are incremental, and farmers may need to innovate faster and more extensively to meet the challenges of a changing climate and a growing demand for food.

Study leader Patti Kristjanson, of the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre, spoke with AllAfrica's Lauren Everitt about the report's findings, the role of governments in agricultural innovation and the urgency of tackling food insecurity. The agricultural economist says there is no "silver bullet" but she's optimistic that women, information technology and farmer enthusiasm can all be leveraged to help alleviate food insecurity in East Africa.

Your study found that high levels of food insecurity prevent small farmers from adopting innovative agricultural techniques. Could you elaborate on the relationship between the two?

This was a broad survey of many different countries of randomly chosen households, which weren't selected to be the poorest households or anything. So we're finding that across all these very diverse places levels of food insecurity are still high, and that was a sobering finding.

We asked the households: 'How many months of the year do you struggle to find food from any source at all?' So this is not just about food self-sufficiency; it's any way of getting food. Again, we found that in Kenya, for example, up to two months of the year, many households still struggle to get food from any source for their families. And that went up to six months of the year in Ethiopia.

And so we asked farmers to tell us about the changes they'd been making to their farming systems for any reason - to your crops, to your livestock, to your water management and your soil management. We tried to pull a description because we realized we don't have a very clear picture across the board of the kinds of changes people are making.

And then we asked farmers why they made those changes, such as switching to shorter cycle crops. And the reasons are many and complex just like us. When we change our behavior, we don't do it for one reason. We found that they were doing it because of market reasons or labor, or land, and yes, indeed, weather and climate did come up. But we didn't go in and say: 'Tell us how climate change is affecting your behavior.' That's not a good approach because people will tell you what you want to hear.

The levels of food insecurity are still very high and we did find a very strong relationship between that and the number of changes people were making already. In that sense, adaptation or innovativeness does seem to be constrained by the food insecurity situation. Now that's not a causal analysis so we can't say food insecurity causes this, but the fact that it's showing up in such diverse places does tell us that we need to explore that relationship more and not take for granted that it's just about getting better information about new technologies to farmers.

If they have such serious constraints and are unable to take up new practices, then we have to address that root cause first. So it really points to the need to pay special attention to the food security situation. Having said that, it's not all bad news. People are changing their behaviors, they are taking up new practices, they're eager for new information and knowledge. But they need some of the constraints that they're dealing with addressed so that they can change and do new things.

Your study found that many households were already adopting innovative farming techniques. Fifty-five percent of households had taken up at least one shorter-cycle crop variety and 56 percent had adopted at least one drought tolerant variety over the last decade. What influenced those changes? Were they self initiated or influenced by governments or non-governmental organizations?

That's a very good question, and we're trying to tease that out of the analyses that are underway right now, because, like I said, we did ask them why they made these changes. The answer is all of the above. People give numerous reasons for having done it.

We are talking about villages and places where a lot of different things have been happening. We didn't go into places in the middle of nowhere that have not had projects or programs or initiatives underway. Indeed, in Africa, it's not very easy to find places like that. So, yes, there have been projects, there has been research going on, there have been NGOs working in there.

This analysis was not aimed at answering that particular question, by the way. We're not asking to what extent projects or programs influenced the uptake of technology, that's for another study. So there's only so much we can say about that.

But the next paper, in fact, is going to get at that issue quite a bit more than this paper did. This one was focused on getting the news out quickly about what kind of changes are already underway and what people are doing already.

It was to address the question of: Why are we seeing more soil and land management practices, water storage and agroforestry? People are planting trees on farms, but it's not as much as we'd like to see. It's small numbers of trees. So we want to see more of the practices that will make farmers more resilient to a change in climate. So this was a first baby step in the direction of 'tell us what you're doing already' so we can do more research on some of these issues now.

What is the government's role in incentivizing small farmers to adopt innovative agricultural approaches?

The government has a huge role to play. The emphasis on agricultural research and development efforts has been very, very low throughout the region. Governments have committed to allocate 10 percent of their total budgets to agriculture, but in this region they're nowhere near that. So we have to invest in this sector. It's really going to need it if we're going to enhance food security because it's still at a very, very low level.

You're quoted as saying that "as rainfall patterns shift, and average temperatures rise due to climate change, [farmers] may need to change faster and more extensively." How soon do farmers have to make these changes?

They're already talking about seeing more extreme events and more variability. We definitely know over the next 10, 20, 30 years that this is only going to increase.

But it's not immediate, and I don't want this to be a gloom-and-doom message that you have to change tomorrow. However, farmers definitely have to be thinking about these things and starting to shift. So that's why it's good we're seeing some changes going on and that people are starting to think about it and that there is much more awareness about climate change.

Having said that, farmers are not necessarily changing their behavior because of climate change. That's a luxury wealthy people have when we decide not to take a flight because we want to do something good for climate change. That's not where these smallholder farmers are coming from. But they are much more aware, and they're getting access to so much more information than they used to.

This points to a lot of new opportunities with new ICTs for getting information through cell phones, through television. More and more people in this region have televisions and are watching television; everyone's got a radio, everyone's got a cell phone or access to a cell phone, so there are huge opportunities to get information on different options, which is what it's all about. But there's no silver bullet or one magic technology for any particular place.

How do you motivate smallholder farmers to adopt innovative agricultural techniques and implement these changes rapidly? Is there one technique or program that has emerged from your research that has been more successful than others?

Including women in the discussion and giving them more access to information. We know that many of the household farm level decisions are made by women, as well as men, but women have been largely left out of the information loop. So a key strategy is to include them in all efforts and to specifically target them. That's not to say exclude the men or threaten the men, but definitely including the women more than we have been and trying to reach women in more innovative ways.

That said, I have yet to interview a farmer anywhere in Africa that doesn't tell me they're dying for more and better information than they're getting. So we still have a long way to go.

How do you counter critics who say that agricultural innovations, such as genetically modified crops, are a Western product meant to serve Western agricultural business interests?

This is not my area of expertise, but farmers need all the different kinds of options and strategies and approaches that they can get. This is a huge challenge. In this day and age to see so many farmers still struggling to just make it through the year and feed their families shows that we've got to do way, way more about it.

If smallholder farmers could only adopt only one of the many recommended agricultural changes, which in your estimation would be the most effective?

Well I worry about that because there isn't any silver bullet. But water shortages are going to be a real issue in the coming years and so to start thinking about water storage for both household-level use and also for agriculture is clearly key.

But also soil fertility measures - and it's not just about buying fertilizer. It's about manure and compost, and we're starting to see people doing more of that. So those kinds of measures: terracing, controlling water runoff, putting organic matter back into the soil - they're huge. And the farmers, themselves, are really seeing productivity going down because they have not been putting enough back into the soil, so those are key ones, I think.

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