NewsEast & Horn AfricaHow to feed Africa and sustain the environment


Posted on Thursday, 15 May 2014 15:12

How to feed Africa and sustain the environment

By Dr. Andrew Noble

Photo©ReutersAgriculture is a major contributor to environmental degradation. As demand for food production in Africa grows, the stroke of entrepreneurial genius that brought Ethiopian Tilahun Metferiya success is inspiring a movement of farmers, researchers and policy makers - both in Ethiopia and Kenya - looking to do things differently.


It was more than a stroke of entrepreneurial genius that brought Tilahun Metferiya success. Last year, Tilahun launched a thriving seedling business on a patch of land in Ethiopia's Amhara region, and now he expects to quadruple his income. But he couldn't have gotten this far without a steady supply of water for irrigation.

In his district of Ethiopia, irrigation has reached more than 10,000 households in the past two years, allowing farmers to produce food year-round. Now, they can grow vegetables in the dry season—and Tilahun supplies them with high-quality seedlings. Other young, educated Ethiopians are following his lead, and a new business sector is emerging.

Tilahun has reaped this success using just 500 square meters of land, making him one of the continent's millions of smallholder farmers. Africa's smallholders feed the continent, and they will continue to be the bedrock of African agriculture for decades to come. Yet the challenges they face are enormous, and the tensions between food production, social cohesion and healthy ecosystems have never been greater. Rapidly expanding populations, climate change and unsustainable farming practices are undermining the resilience of ecosystems and the natural assets on which agriculture depends. Water, soil, trees and biodiversity are under mounting pressure.

Irrigation is a perfect example of the knife's edge that agricultural innovation must travel. Done in the right way, irrigation can be used to both help end the extreme poverty of rural areas and strengthen the resilience of agriculture. But, if mismanaged, it can rapidly deplete water resources that may take decades or centuries to be replenished.

It took India less than 50 years to go from negligible use of groundwater to becoming the world's leading user—with overuse of this precious resource draining aquifers at the same time that it boosted food production. The Indian government has since had to completely rethink its approach to water management, which remains a significant challenge.

Modern agriculture is also a major contributor to carbon emissions and deforestation, and has contributed to the mass extinction of plant and animal species. As smallholder farmers leave behind antiquated farming practices—water hauled in buckets, soil tilled with hand-held hoes—and adopt mechanized farming techniques, the question is not whether to modernize, but how to do so in ways that strengthen the resilience of social and ecological systems while producing significantly more food.

The answers can be found with entrepreneurs like Tilahun, who are part of an inspiring movement of farmers, researchers and policy makers looking to do things differently. And they can also be found in countries across the region, including in Kenya, where the planned environmental rebound of the Tana River basin—source of the nation's longest river—shows this progress.

The Tana basin provides 70-80 percent of the drinking water for Nairobi's three million residents. It supports farmers growing tea, coffee and maize; pastoralist communities raising livestock; wildlife and tourism businesses; and fish-rich coastal ecosystems. The Tana River itself supplies some of Kenya's largest irrigation schemes.

But intensive farming and deforestation upstream lead to sedimentation downstream that jeopardizes Nairobi's drinking reservoirs. Today, many Nairobi residents are drilling down into shallow aquifers to harvest their own water. Unregulated pumping has reportedly already lowered groundwater in boreholes.

Against this backdrop of unplanned development, Kenya's Water Resource Management Authority (WRMA) and its partners implemented a water use management plan that is beginning to take root. Clear-cut slopes of the Aberdare Mountains have been replanted and soils restored. Erosion has been reduced dramatically and water flow increased, leading to more sustainable agriculture nearby.

In Kenya's Tana basin, policies and practices that keep ecosystems healthy are proving to be a prerequisite to agricultural development and the resilience of food and water systems. Similar approaches are needed across Africa, and can pave the way for millions of smallholder farmers and entrepreneurs to seize the initiative and transform African agriculture.

There are three key ways to pursue this goal. The first is to focus public and private investments on empowering smallholder farmers so that they have the necessary capital, land and access to markets to make their own choices and develop commercially viable farms.

Governments and development entities must also balance, in their policies and investments, the many different users of natural resources. Large-scale projects such as irrigation or water management have to account for how they impact other users of these resources. People downstream should not pay the price for upstream progress.

Most importantly, we need to be flexible and incorporate the needs and voices of all stakeholders when making decisions. The pace of social change across Africa is accelerating. Access to information is expanding exponentially, and top-down prescriptive policies cannot work for the long-term. We need to allow for all groups to help define policies and investments that affect them, directly or indirectly.

Solutions have already taken root in Africa. It's time to recognize them, and help them grow.

Dr. Andrew Noble is the Director for the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. His research career in agriculture spans over 30 years and includes research and academic assignments in South Africa, Australia and Southeast and Central Asia.

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