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Food crisis has been a reality in Africa for many years, and at this point images of malnourished African people, although still shocking, are no longer news. In 2020, due to the pandemic, we saw a tremendous worsening of world hunger. This calls for an urgent change in the primary sector, mainly to more sustainable practices.

If we don’t change the way we are operating in the agri-food systems we won’t be able to achieve the SDGs (sustainable development goals), and the goals for 2030

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United States Chief
Mother and child in Nigeria suffering from hunger and malnutrition

The primary sector still stands as the main driver of African economies. Modernization and research on this matter are, however, far from its potential, as most workers are still unqualified. Aligned with this is the lack of farmers commitment to change their practices and see the long-term results of overexploitation. Consequently, responsible and fact-based agriculture is rare, especially in rural areas. These damaging agricultural and pastoralist methods, alongside climate change and its resulting extreme weather conditions, will be unsustainable for African ecosystems. As consumers begin to value organic and chemical-free production, a greener approach could improve both the environmental and economic situation of African nations. Sustainable agriculture is an almost perfect fit with Africa’s current state.

But what is meant by sustainable agriculture?

This concept consists of managing renewable natural resources in such way that provides food, income and livelihood for present and future generations, while maintaining or improving the economic productivity and ecosystem services of these resources. This type of farming combines environmental safety with economic profitability and efficient use of non-renewable resources. Conserving water resources, reducing the use of chemicals, developing ecosystem and crop biodiversity are just some of the goals of sustainable agriculture.

Over the years, value and demand for organic products has increased, thus by adopting sustainable agricultural practices, Africa would distinguish itself from most of the developing world that, unfortunately, has been increasing its use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, as it is the case of Brazil and Bangladesh. In addition, to purchase those same pesticides and fertilizers, farmers need to request loans, limiting household budget as debt accumulates. Thus, unlike their counterparts, organic farmers have increased their earnings and food security.

Graph 1: Increase in pesticide use, from 1990 to latest data (2007-12)

The benefits of sustainable agriculture

An example that clearly illustrates the benefits of sustainable agriculture is Ethiopia. In the degraded region of Tigray, a 10-year experiment, starting in 1996, provided evidence that organic and sustainable agriculture does have benefits to poor farmers and communities. To do so, ecological agricultural practices were introduced, including composting, water and soil conservation activities, among others.

The impact of compost on crop yield was rapidly visible, and data collected from 2002-2004 indicated that, on average, composted fields gave higher yields, sometimes double, than those treated with chemical fertilisers. Moreover, the positive effects of compost can remain up to 4 years, opposite to the latter that must be applied every year. With this, farmers have not only been able to cease debt resulting from fertilizers purchases, but also, since they are obtaining higher yields, it leads to economic returns. All this just by changing from fertilizers to compost.

Furthermore, since organic production focuses on smaller and more diverse crops, communities have access to a wider variety of nutrients and vitamins that help fight hunger and malnutrition. This also has a positive impact on HIV/AIDS patients that when malnourished, develop the full symptoms of the disease at a faster pace. Other health benefits include the reduction of illnesses and deaths due to agrochemical exposure.

A more independent continent

Nevertheless, as we all know, foreign aid is a very present reality for Africa, which contributes for it to be overshadowed by other nations. Thereby, offering local people work-for-food opportunities allows them to take care of their immediate food needs, while ensuring that they feel ownership of a project they have built themselves. This type of model encourages long-term participation for a truly sustainable system, and it improves physical capital, since market accessibility becomes a requirement. By building a network between farmers, NGOs and the government, many infrastructures would improve, as the agriculture industry tends to move forward in these African nations.

An indirect benefit would be African communities’ view on education, as their traditional knowledge builds up with new information. Educational programs on agriculture have been proven effective in other regions. In China, for example, farmer field schools helped reduce pesticide usage while raising crop yields. By seeing their educational and technological improvements literally bear fruit, governments can value sustainable agriculture differently and ensure children attendance at school. An increase in productivity can benefit the latter, since selling production surpluses will help paying for school fees. Similarly, an increase in labor demand for related activities could increase women’s participation in the economy and generate different sources of income for households.

However, it is not that easy…

Some challenges arise for African countries when seizing opportunities regarding the adoption of sustainable agricultural practices, especially in terms of market access difficulties and building productive capacities. This happens mainly due to the absence of economic incentives from the African Governments and their decision to implement policies, such as agrochemical subsidies, which makes the transition even less appealing.

UN calls for more funding for organic farming in Africa

A further constraint is the lack of awareness, not only at the farm level but in the whole society. The fact that this type of agriculture is completely absent from its agricultural education and R&D leads to massive misinformation barriers that inhibit its implementation. Related to this is the fact that no system can become operational if it is not institutionalized: in many African countries, research and development in agriculture are inadequate and suffer from lack of trained personnel, facilities, and motivation, making it difficult to build satisfactory research traditions and local expertise.

Additionally, there are three conditions that are crucial to analyze when studying the possible implementation of sustainable agriculture in a country: reasons for non-sustainability must be known, there must be sufficient information on the resource base to target activities that will foster sustainability, and the resource base can be monitored to evaluate sustainability. The problem is that these are uncertain in almost every African country. Another relevant restriction is the fact that developing countries do not have the appropriate research methodology to implement sustainable agriculture. Fundamental questions, such as what treatments to implement, what measurements to consider, how the data can be analyzed and how long the experiments should be conducted, are yet to be answered.

African farmer using pesticides

The challenges are worth surpassing

All in all, sustainable agriculture is assured to have a positive impact in Africa, but it requires appropriate incentives and intensified financial and technical assistance to ensure food security and social stability. It is essential for African governments to create awareness on the subject so that private organizations can contribute to the implementation of sustainable agricultural practices.

In a time where the world population does not seem to cease increasing, additional land will have to be cultivated, which gives even more importance to this issue: since all the major causes of land degradation are the result of poor land management, sustainable agriculture will do a great job preventing it.

Sources: The Borgen Project, Vox, African Wildlife Foundation, Stein T. Holden, Regional Office for Africa, African Business, Rainbow for the Future, Science Direct, Taylor & Francis Online, UNDP, Agence Française de Développement (AFD), The African Exponent, African News, Africa Center, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Third World Network.

Madalena Andrade

Magda Costa

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