London — Smallholder farmers in Africa must participate in research to ensure higher crop yields and to fend off hunger as the continent's population grows, according to a report published today (18 April).
A combination of traditional knowledge and modern science will be key to achieving higher productivity at lower ecological cost - known as 'sustainable intensification' - the report says.
'Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture' was written by the Montpellier Panel, a group of international experts from the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade, policy and global development.
The group first met in Montpellier, France, in March 2010, with the aim of helping European policymakers make better decisions in support of food security and agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The new report is a reaction to the growing politicisation of the term 'sustainable intensification', which some now see to be promoting the interests of big, industrial agriculture.
Taking a different view, the report claims the sustainable intensification approach can help smallholder farmers grow more crops and protect the environment.
In Sub-Saharan Africa food demand is growing rapidly, while supply is still insufficient. It is estimated that by 2050 the African food production system will be able to meet no more than 13 per cent of the population's needs.
A possible approach to tackling the problem is to reduce food waste by improving supply chains and facilitating access to healthy food. However, the Montpellier Panel maintains that for 80 per cent of the chronically hungry African smallholders, low productivity remains a major issue.
Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and a Montpellier Panel member, believes that a bottom-up approach is "absolutely essential" for sustainable intensification.
"We need to get farmers involved in the process, testing out new crop varieties and new ways to use soil and water," she tells SciDev.Net.
Toulmin adds that, to engage the farmers, "there's no need for a formal meeting platform - you just need to encourage a different way of working".
Along with the other members of the Montpellier Panel, she believes that to improve communication between international researchers and local smallholders, the best solution is to visit affected communities, spend time in villages and fields, and to listen and learn.
"Scientific knowledge can be obtained anywhere - globally or locally," says Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, chief executive of the South African Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) and fellow panel member. "But any science must be adapted to local conditions, and policies must be put in place to support implementation."
Majele Sibanda cites the water pockets technique known as zai, pioneered by farmers in Burkina Faso, as an example of a traditional practice recognised by modern science.
Farmers dig holes - or zais - across the fields during the dry season, and fill them with manure to attract termites. The termites then create an extensive network of underground tunnels beneath the holes and bring up nutrients from the deeper soils.
Rainwater is captured in the zais, and water loss through drainage is limited by the manure. Thus even in drought-prone environments, sufficient water capture to sustain crop yields is ensured.
In the northeast of Burkina Faso, where the zai technique has been practised since the early 1980s, grain yield has increased by 120 per cent, equating to around 80,000 tonnes of extra grain per year.
"The labour in the first year is high, but farmers may reuse the holes or dig more between the existing ones," says Majele Sibanda.
Unai Pascual, a senior lecturer in land economy at the University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and a professor at the Basque Foundation for Science in Bilbao, Spain, who was not involved in the study, agrees with the panel's calls for the greater involvement of African farmers in research processes.
"Any intervention has to be legitimised by the people it is going to affect or it won't last in the long term," Pascual tells SciDev.Net. He believes that farmers should join scientists in designing new measures, because they are familiar with the complexities of local systems.
"What I would have liked to see in the report is more attention to the time frame of any intervention," he says.
"Interventions need to be carefully balanced," because the relationship between agriculture and local environments is dynamic and changes over time, he explains. "Some funding approaches can work in the short period, but afterwards socio-ecological conditions will change as a consequence."
The report also recommends a range of actions aimed at governments in developed countries and Africa, to act upon sustainable intensification, in partnerships with the private sector, civil society organisations and NGOs.
These include providing support for research and innovation to help identify suitable technologies and processes; the scaling up and out of such technologies and processes; providing financial investments and markets that support sustainable intensification; and making required inputs and credits accessible to smallholder farmers in Africa.