A study by the African Child Policy Forum found that nearly 60 million children in Africa do not have enough food despite economic growth in recent years. To plug this gap, the private and charity sector continually propose new approaches and strategies that could ease the effects. For example, in 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation launched the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) aiming to double agricultural productivity and incomes for 30 million farm families by 2020. Although admirable, their approach centred on government subsidies for commercial seeds and synthetic fertilisers – harsh chemicals that evidence suggests serve to reduce crop and diet diversity, undermine soil fertility, and still produce disappointing gains in productivity and farmer incomes. Indeed, ten years into AGRA and the Global Hunger Index scores remained in the "serious" or "alarming" categories for 12 of the 13 countries AGRA is trying to help. For example, in Zambia, even where crop production increased as the result of using these synthetic fertilisers, the gains failed to translate into reductions in rural poverty and around 78 per cent of rural Zambians still live in extreme poverty.
Yet across the region, there are green shoots of hope yet they do not come from the backing of big international corporations. Instead, evidence demonstrates that farmers that have reverted to utilising ecological agricultural techniques are able to reduce costs, increase soil fertility, raise more diverse, healthy, and culturally appropriate food crops and adapt their farms to climate change.
‘Agroecology’, is the study of how ecological processes can be applied to agricultural production systems to provide new management approaches to farming. Agroecosystems provide cheap, accessible solutions to farming that offer rural farmers the inspiration they need to farm alongside nature to promote the soil-building practices that "agricultural modernisation" often undermines.
Here are four agroecological approaches that could help rural African farmers to farm smarter and lift their communities out of hunger, malnutrition and climate-based food security issues.
‘Multiple cropping’ involves or growing several different crops in the same field. It enables better soil utilisation, produces better yields by as much as 60%, and increases crop production. By planting several different types of grain or seeds within the same ecosystem, the crop allows the cost of producing the crop to reduce and reduces pest incidence and weed control advantages as well as reducing wind erosion.
Agroecology is centered upon being kinder to the environment and therefore, it also encourages the use of compost, manure, and biofertilisers as opposed to man-made, fossil-fuel-based fertiliser, to fertilise fields.
Studies have shown that using natural materials such as animal waste as fertiliser can promote crop growth, improve a crops nutrient profile, and crucially, they are sustainable and therefore they hold no lasting effect on the environment.
Researchers have found that improving the productivity of locally found seeds, rather than replacing them with commercial seeds farmers that come alongside fertiliser, enables biodiversity which can support food security and biodiversity to ensure crops are protected and not driven to extinction.
Healthy seeds also provide a biological form of pest control that also serves to decrease the use of pesticides.
To protect locally grown crops, several regions have introduced community seed banks to enhance access to seeds and plants adapted to local conditions, provide agricultural training and also contribute to sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty.
For instance, in Kenya, farmers have created a network of community seed banks to identify, save, and distribute nutritious and productive varieties of local food crops that are under threat of extinction as genetically-modified seeds are pushed by international conglomerates as a way to produce better yields. In Malawi for example, female farmers identified 300 vegetables and planted them using permaculture techniques – selecting the perfect crop for the climate and geography as opposed to the most popular crop to sell. In doing so, they have improved their income, nutrition, and health considerably.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government launched a land restoration program designed to double agricultural productivity through the improved management of natural resources and agricultural lands. The project found that farmers implementing measures such as soil bunds with infiltration ditches, stone-faced bunds that accommodate peak rainfall, fared much better than those using chemical-based fertilisers alone. The result was improvements in income and health.
Since the project began, physical and biological Soil and Water Conservation (SWC) measures have been introduced in more than 3,000 watersheds that are managed by local communities. The programme is now accepted as Ethiopian government policy and this agroecological approach has been widely adopted with positive results.
African governments and farmers do not need aid in the form of chemicals, mass-produced seeds and expensive technology to solve the food security crisis. Instead, farmers should be encouraged to go back to basics, to take innovation from nature and work with their environment, instead of against it to boost crops yields, nutritional content and tackle both malnutrition and hunger.
Evidence is beginning to show that taking a gentle approach to rural agriculture is yielding results that are increasingly encouraging governments to incorporate agroecology techniques into their mandated Climate Adaptation Plans, providing a sustainable path for an uncertain future.
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