Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies.  Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.  This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.

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  • 1. Science and Technology Options That Can Make a Difference

    Recommendation 1.1: Adopt a market-led productivity improvement strategy

    A strategy of market-led productivity improvement should be embraced in order to achieve a balance between demand and supply, thereby providing incentives for farmers to close existing yield gaps and become more income secure in the process. Allowing farmers to respond effectively to price signals will result in more productive systems. This involves strengthening the competitive ability of farmers by using information and communications technology to provide speedy and timely market and price information, identifying new niche value-added marketing opportunities, quality literacy (including phytosanitary and safety standards), and encouraging and promoting farmer organizations, including co-operatives. Such a market-led productivity strategy implies in the first place strengthened local and regional markets The emphasis has to be on increasing local consumption particularly by those who are undernourished. Farmers need to organize themselves to strengthen their market orientation and in that process to encourage partnerships with the private agro-service sector, firstly for local and regional markets. African companies should be encouraged by appropriate incentives. Opportunities to improve post-harvest handling to minimize losses and to add value to primary products need to be grasped along with improved grading, packaging, cooling and storage in order to promote exports. These will help to create expanded opportunities for non-farm employment as agricultural productivity improves and frees up labour.

    Farmer organizations also need to partner with research, education and extension organizations in a market-driven participatory knowledge quadrangle, which effectively links innovation, information, knowledge and education. Women farmers need particular attention from the point of view of knowledge and skill empowerment, since they play a leading role in the cultivation and commercialization of food crops.

    Recommendation 1.2: Adopt a production ecological approach with a primary focus on identified continental priority farming systems

    Although other systems should not be neglected, especially at regional and national levels, to have a significant and speedy impact on agricultural productivity and food security in Africa, four production systems merit priority attention: the maize mixed, the cereal/root crop mixed, the irrigated, and the tree crop based. They represent agricultural bright spots. No generic recommendations can be made to enhance their factor productivity, but systematic production ecological analyses are needed to identify constraints and opportunities for system-specific improvement. The production ecological approach has proven its value in enhancing the productivity of specialized systems and has the capability to unravel the complex relationships in diversified systems. Designing mixed and multiple cropping, as well as multi-dimensional cropping based upon the principles of symbiosis and synergy, should receive greater attention. This should include choice of companion crops, which can extract water and nutrients from the soil and sunlight from the atmosphere in an efficient manner. In general soil fertility and water availability are major limiting factors, but pests and diseases may reduce productivity growth considerably.

    Productivity gains in recent decades in irrigated and commercial agriculture and prospects for further improvements of these specialized systems are favourable and to be encouraged. The bulk of African agriculture is however small-scale, often involving more than 15 crops in combination with animal species in highly diversified, rainfed farming systems. Such systems have received scant attention from science and technology, resulting in limited knowledge of their functioning in ecological, economic and social terms. These shortcomings warrant specific attention to identify opportunities for improvements.

    The production ecological approach should also involve the revitalization of the cultivation of ecologically adapted and low-input requiring crops like millets, legumes and tubers, referred to as the local crops of Africa. Both dying wisdom and dying crops need to be saved. This calls for an inter-disciplinary project on under-utilized and orphan crops.

    The aim in this strategy is to build on the advantages of diversified crop-livestock farming systems in Africa. Reinforcing the synergies within diversified farming systems in the design and conduct of agricultural research and development is a preferred strategy; specialization by definition does not offer such synergies and is not a panacea. The role of livestock in diversified systems must be recognized and accorded appropriate priority in R&D strategies in response to the increasing demands for animal products in the coming decades. Veterinary extension and services must be strengthened to protect animals against endemic and exotic diseases and zoonoses, and improved genetic stock introduced to enhance animal productivity. The private sector must play a key role here.

    Recommendation 1.3: Pursue a strategy of integrated sustainable intensification

    The aim of science and technology should be integrated sustainable intensification of agricultural production, encompassing a simultaneous increase in the productivity of land, labour and other inputs, while minimizing adverse environmental effects. The complexity of farming systems in Africa demands integrated approaches. Knowledge-intensive and technology-driven approaches that realize the potentials to boost productivity should be integrated with indigenous knowledge and farmers' needs and demands to assure the appropriateness and adoption of innovations. Integrated soil, water, nutrient and pest management approaches to research and development, both in the priority and other production systems, are essential for sustainable intensification. This will require local institutional innovations such as farmer field schools promoted by Food and Agriculture Organization, Landcare in Australia. and integrated soil fertility programs of the International Soil Fertility Development Center. New breeding technologies, such as marker-assisted breeding and new biotechnological tools, such as the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), are expected to become increasingly important options in addressing the many biotic and abiotic constraints facing African farming systems.

    Recommendation 1.4: Bridge the genetic divide

    A substantial amount of additional investment is needed to respond to the specific needs of African farmers in order for them to derive benefit from the integrated application of both classical plant breeding and genetic modification. Africa cannot rely on external developments in this field because of the specific requirements of the diversified systems. It would be prudent to adopt a regional rather than a national approach to exploit biotechnology. Without substantial investments now, including by the private sector, Africa will be left behind as biotechnology has a significant gestation period before its impact is realized. Capacity in biotechnology must be strengthened, especially so that public institutions can effectively pursue public-private partnerships to bring the benefits of genetically modified organisms to the orphan crops and neglected areas that constrain African smallholders. The non-GMO components of biotechnology need immediate attention since they can help to improve eco-farming.

    As the Green Revolution has largely bypassed marginal regions (which are extensive on the African continent), life sciences should focus especially on traits such as drought tolerance and resistances to the wide variety of pest and diseases. Greater attention should be given to breeding for agroecological and farming system niches using decentralized breeding and farmer participatory breeding approaches. Both research capabilities and regulatory procedures will need strengthening in order to exploit these opportunities in life sciences and ensure that biosafety aspects are adequately addressed. The well-being of farmers and consumers and the safety of the environment should be the bottom-line of the regulatory policies.

    Recommendation 1.5: Recognize the potential of rainfed agriculture and accord it priority

    Rainfed agriculture will remain the dominant system in Africa for decades to come. The further scope for economically viable and environmentally benign large-scale irrigation development in Africa is limited. Rainfed systems offer the best opportunities for the improved productivity that reduces poverty and food insecurity, provided there are greatly increased investments in agricultural research and development and infrastructure directed at these agro-ecologies.

    Large improvements in water-use efficiency can be obtained in rainfed production systems by exploiting ecological synergies. A comprehensive package of agronomic measures should be pursued, including drought-tolerant cultivars; fertilization and small-scale supplemental irrigation during prolonged drought periods; harnessing underground water, even if quality is poor; or rainwater harvested in small dams. Supplemental irrigation can prevent total crop failure and stabilize and improve crop yields, but it is only likely to be profitable on higher-value crops. Inclusion of risk-reducing information with weather forecasts should be an integral part of such a comprehensive strategy.

    Recommendation 1.6: Reduce land degradation and replenish soil fertility

    Soil health and fertility management holds the key to enhancing crop productivity. Land degradation, due to overexploitation through cultivated area expansion, is a major threat to the African continent and leads to a downward spiral of productivity. This spiral can be broken with an integrated approach, exploiting the synergistic effect of inorganic and organic fertilization on soil and crop productivity. Low external input agriculture appears inadequate to control nutrient depletion, and to increase labour productivity. It should be realized that the very poor fertility of many African soils requires a long-term investment, which may not be forthcoming if relying only on market forces.

    Recommendation 1.7: Explore higher-scale integrated catchment strategies for natural resource management

    Strategies on catchment/watershed scales should be explored to optimize land and water use and safeguard biodiversity. This should include management of forest resources and conservation of native vegetation and associated wildlife habitat.

    The projected water scarcities in many regions of Africa require strategies and policies for its sustainable use to address the increasingly competitive multi-sectoral demands for water. Appropriate combinations of legal frameworks, education and social mobilization will be required to build a sustainable water security system for Africa.

    Recommendation 1.8: Promote the conservation, sustainable and equitable use of biodiversity

    Africa has a rich treasure trove of biodiversity in flora and fauna. In many circumstances, properly structured private-public sector partnerships can provide a means of exploiting this potential and creating niche markets (e.g., medicinal plants). Increased investments in national and regional genebanks will be required to fully realize this promise. Tools need to be developed to determine the value and function of the different components of agrobiodiversity to farmers and other sectors of society if it is to be conserved and sustainably used. As well, conservation and commercialization have to become mutually reinforcing so as to create an economic stake in conservation.

    To give effect to this will require a strengthening of local, national and subregional policies on agrobiodiversity conservation and use. Policy support is vital to halt genetic erosion; without it, national programs will continue to lack the finances and capacity to support conservation and use initiatives in a meaningful way. As a first step, make information on agrobiodiversity known and readily available in different formats for different audiences and users. In areas rich in the biodiversity of under-utilized crops like sorghum and millets, as for example in the Rift Valley in East Africa, community-managed agrobiodiversity sanctuarities may be established.

    Recommendation 1.9: Enhance use of mechanical power

    Selective mechanization to increase power-use intensity is an important option where there are labour shortages for specific operations and no adverse environmental consequences. Such an option would improve labour productivity; facilitate timeliness of operations, especially with the increasing labour constraints arising from health-related problems (such as malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS; and reduce drudgery. This would also reduce the dependence on hand-tools in favour of animal and mechanical draught power, which may also serve to attract currently disaffected youth to consider farming as a worthy career.

    There is a need to encourage at national and regional levels the local manufacture of agricultural inputs, including agricultural machinery and equipment for all phases of agricultural production, fertilizer, agricultural chemicals, etc., in order to enhance agro-industrial development and reduce African countries' dependence for such goods on the industrialized countries of the world.

    Recommendation 1.10: Embrace information and communication technology at all levels

    Information and communications technology tools, such as decision-support systems and geographic information systems, should be mobilized to help amplify, accelerate and improve the precision of farmer decisionmaking and harvest the fruits of modern methods such as integrated water, nutrient, pest and disease management and weather forecasting information. Information and communications technology can also be used at catchment levels to investigate emerging issues that arise from increased competition for water within agriculture, and between agriculture and other sectors.

    To realize these opportunities to reach the unreached and excluded, there must be vastly improved access to information and communications technology in Africa. Increased investments in communications and knowledge infrastructure are required to enable access to the Internet, libraries and information centres for the participatory knowledge quadrangle of farmers, extension professionals, educators and scientists. Such investments will provide them with the resources of currently available databases and other information. Institutions lacking fast and affordable access to the Internet should make full use of CD-based information sets such as The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library. Better-connected institutions should subscribe to Access to Global On-Line Research in Agriculture. There is also significant potential for web-based distance education and videoconferencing to both complement and supplement courses given in African universities. An integrated application of the Internet and radio will help to transmit timely information to all who may benefit from it.

    Recommendation 1.11: Improve the coping strategies of farmers in response to environmental variability and climate change

    Climate change and variability highlights the necessity to develop anticipatory short- and long-term forecasting research, and this requires training of scientists. Severe constraints in African agriculture are the high risk of crop failure and death of animals due to variability in weather, particularly rainfall. These constraints will be exacerbated by climate change. Addressing them requires a comprehensive set of agronomic measures, including drought-tolerant crops and supplementary irrigation. Crop improvement strategies should place greater emphasis on robust systems that reduce yield losses due to extreme weather events and greater consideration should be given to changing crop species (e.g., replacing some maize with cassava in Southern Africa).

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