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Growing possibilities in Africa

Recent evidence shows that a remarkable transformation in African agriculture is underway through a relatively quiet and very Green revolution.

All too often, images of drought and hunger stalk the continent. Despite the fact that agriculture accounts for 65% of full-time employment in Africa and provides a livelihood for two-thirds of the continent’s poor, hunger and poverty are widespread (Pretty et al. 2011a). At the root of a deepening ‘polycrisis’ of poverty, hunger and environmental degradation is presumed to be a ‘backward’ agricultural sector which has lagged behind the progress made by Asia and Latin America. In response, many are now advocating an ‘African Green Revolution’.

In the 20th century, Green Revolution techniques have driven remarkable increases in crop yields across the world, and helped millions out of hunger and poverty. The Green Revolution involved the spread of use of high-yielding crop strains, supported by the application of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Though these methods produced high yields, the the long-term impacts of these technologies and the way they were developed and used have given many pause. It is now understood that a sole focus on increasing yields can be counter-productive in the long-run, causing or exacerbating environmental and social problems. Yet, it is also clear that demand for agricultural goods (especially food) is increasing, due to the demands for food and raw materials for growing and industrialising populations increasingly connected to the global economy. At the same time, resources available for farming are being constrained as a result of environmental change and competing uses such as industrial activity.

The production of more output from the same land, while maintaining or improving environmental conditions, is called ‘sustainable intensification’. African farmers are already using dozens of tools, technologies and processes which might be classed as such to grow more, earn more and care more for their land. These creative solutions and their remarkable results attest to the fact that a promising transformation is already underway.

In many respects, the new practices and the ways in which they are developed and spread are quite different to those of the past Green Revolution. There is no singular model, no overarching blueprint crafted in distant laboratories or offices and transferred via test-plots and development agencies to farmers fields. Instead, many new techniques, practices, processes and partnerships, and novel combinations of these, are arising either organically or through participatory rural development programmes. The key point of departure from past models is the central role played by farmers. Farmers are developing what works, improving yields and growing businesses, caring for their land and reaping the benefits. External agencies such as NGOs, research firms or government bodies are lending a helping hand, but farmers themselves are the heart and spine of innovation.

This article describes the key lessons learnt from some 40 cases of such ‘sustainable intensification’ from across Africa. The case studies were commissioned by the UK Government Office of Science Foresight project on Global Food and Farming and were produced as academic papers within a special issue of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (IJAS) (Pretty et al. 2011b). 40 projects and programmes from 20 countries were studied. These provide a body of evidence on the successes which are possible, and discuss the potential for scaling up. They highlight the transformative power of ‘care-full’ agriculture to increase yields, benefit the environment, bring communities together and grow incomes. Taken together, the 40 cases have documented benefits for 10.39 million farmers and their families and improvements on approximately 12.75 million hectares of land across the African continent (Pretty et al. 2011a). Yields have increased on average by a factor of 2.13 over a 3-10 year period.



The cases described within the IJAS volume cover six key types of improvements to agricultural practice which have raised yields whilst also developing natural and social capital.

Eleven cases describe crop variety improvements, involving partnerships between laboratories and farmers. These resulted in improved varieties of crops otherwise pejoratively termed ‘orphan crops’. Orange-fleshed sweet-potato, cassava, plantain, tef, pigeon-pea and soyabean were previously neglected by breeding programmes, but there is now a growing recognition of their value and their appropriateness to the African context. They provide more than food and income. Orange-fleshed sweet potato serves as a significant source of vitamin-A. Improved Tef has resulted in increased yields without the need for much pesticide or herbicide, thus saving costs, and pigeonpea is a resilient crop which provides an income during seasons when vegetables are in short supply.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is a mix of practices designed to work with the ecology of the field to prevent or minimise losses from pest attacks using a minimum of synthetic pesticides. IPM case-studies tell of how farmers learn innovative techniques through Farmer Field Schools (where farmers teach other farmers in a real-world environment). This approach allows farmers to adapt what they learn to local conditions, spread knowledge and skills and build a sense of community. Describing a case of IPM in East Africa, Khan et al. (2011) write about ‘push-pull technology’ – an innovative system of soil, pest and weed management on mixed cereal-livestock farms which has now been adopted by some 30,000 smallholders in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The system was developed with a range of partners – international and national research institutions, international funders and national extension networks. Crucially, “as part of the research and development strategy, ICIPE directly involved thousands of smallholder farmers to test and experience the push-pull technology on their own farms… Farmers applied the technology in different configurations according to their unique farming systems” (p. 163). The system has resulted in significant benefits: 3-4 fold increases in yields of maize and 2-fold increases in sorghum have “enabled a typical family of six to move from a situation of food insecurity to food sufficiency” (p. 165). Soil health is improved through increased nitrogen fixation, biodiversity on the farm is enhanced. The system has enabled farmers to enjoy a revitalized and productive relationship with the land, enabling them to move out of poverty without migrating to cities.

Soil conservation and agroforestry involve a variety of practices designed to prevent or minimize soil erosion, regenerate degraded landscapes and generate income. Tree-planting drives have resulted in remarkable and widespread ‘regreening’ of desertified areas. In Cameroon, the use of ‘fertilizer trees’ has improved soil health, and the cultivation of fruit trees has allowed farmers to grow fruit for sale in local and regional markets. Tree products are also processed, generating additional jobs, opportunities for entrepreneurship and income. With success has come the opportunity to grow businesses, with farmers being helped to obtain microfinance (though the writers caution that “these loans are very desirable, but are not essential for the longer-term sustainability of the project” (Asaah et al. 2011, p. 117).


Fertiliser Tree: The Acacia Tree is a free source of nitrogen for farms

Other systems involving improved land management include the adoption of Conservation Agriculture, which involves cultivation without ploughing or tilling the soil in order to conserve nutrients and soil moisture. The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) involves innovative techniques for planting and growing rice which result in improved yields. Describing these improvements, Pretty et al. (2011a, p. 15) write that “Yields have so improved from these systems that many rice researcher organizations have not yet been able to believe the evidence, since it runs counter to assumptions.”

Livestock are an important component of improved practice, with farmers improving the management of disease, improving living conditions for animals, developing new breeds and improving supplies of feed and fodder. Livestock provide food and income which can be especially important for vulnerable groups such as women and children, and can supplement incomes derived from crop cultivation. Roothaert et al. (2011) describe how improved livestock management has resulted in dramatic yield improvements in poverty-striken Rakai district, Uganda, where the toll of HIV/AIDS has resulted in households being led by women and orphans. Yields from poultry were low due to poor management and a lack of inputs. In response, farmers were introduced to a participatory breeding programme via a project put together by local and international development agencies. Farmers were provided with birds of an improved breed, inputs, training and support, and have successfully increased yields: “Birds may hatch up to seven times per year compared with 2–3 times with unprogrammed birds; chicks are produced at lower cost since farmers do not need to transport them from distant towns…” (Pretty et al. 2011b, p. 14). These gains have generated income, improved nutritional security (via the consumption of eggs and meat) and Roothaert et al. describe the transformative impacts on local communities:

“Impacts on social capital have been considerable: participating communities transformed from being victims of poverty and HIV/AIDS to successful poultry farmers, experts who train others, shop keepers and group leaders. Group leaders have become liaison persons with government development programmes and other services, bringing more development to the community. The project has elevated the status of women and orphans, as many of them have become trainers and leaders” (Roothaert et al. 2011, p. 229).

Finally, improvements also come from making improvements on small patches of land. Patch management stems from the recognition that previously neglected peripheries and field boundaries can be highly productive spaces. In Kenya and Tanzania, indigenous vegetables are being cultivated by groups of small farmers involved in a FarmAfrica project which enables them to obtain multiple harvests of vegetables in a year. Muhanji et al. (2011, p. 184) write, “African indigenous vegetables have been part of the food systems in sub-Saharan Africa for generations. The region is a natural habitat for more than 45,000 species of plants, of which 1,000 can eaten as green leafy or fruit vegetables.” Revitalising the cultivation of these vegetables, alongside more exotic varieties, adds vital diversity to farms, diets and sources of income, thus increasing social and ecological resilience.



The processes and techniques summarized above are being cultivated and spread via a vibrant and highly effective array of partnerships – between farmers, training groups, regional, national and international NGOs, government agencies, commercial firms and other private sector organisations, financial firms and higher education institutions. These partnerships create novel and efficient means by which to share knowledge, grow a farm-based business and diversify into other income-generating activities. Such partnerships, and the base of trust and mutual cooperation on which they depend, are indicative of high ‘social capital’. ‘Human capital’ is built by initiatives to gain and share knowledge. The Foresight cases demonstrate the great vitality and abundance which can flow from agricultural systems where farmers and external ‘experts’ work together, each contributing their own unique expertise. The cases also demonstrate how farmers can teach other farmers, spreading what works and adapting it creatively to their own local conditions.

Institutional innovations also play a significant role in many of the case studies. Partnerships between international, regional and local agencies can yield powerful results. In Mali, one of the world’s poorest countries, the Strategic Cotton Programme initiated by Oxfam aimed to improve conditions for Malian cotton farmers by working with key stakeholders in the country’s cotton sector to improve cultivation practices, establish cooperatives and provide institutional support (Traore and Bickersteth 2011). The results reported are dramatic: household incomes in programme households have risen by some 8%; women have received literacy training; the production of organic cotton has risen by some 40% and some 400 cooperatives have been established. While old problems of indebtedness, marketing and technology improvement remain, people are more empowered and supported than they have been in the past, and with the establishment of strong networks between farmers and cooperative-based extension agents, people can continue to learn and support each other.

Many of these processes were novel enough to be met with surprise and even initial resistance. For example, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) guidelines “contradict those from research institutes and the agriculture service and often clash with what farmers think works best”, write Styger et al. (2011, p. 73). However, initial resistance to a new idea does not imply a lack of farmer’s involvement or denote a failure of the participatory process. Both farmers and technicians who observed initial results from SRI plots were surprised at the results, and “The SRI experience encouraged people to look at the larger picture, and to rethink agricultural principles and practices, and to explore new ideas” (Styger et al., p. 73). Many of the writers within the volume stress how diverse new models differ from the ‘conventional’ or ‘classical’ mode of agricultural research, development and extension. Specifically, the novel emphasis is on co-learning, partnership, adaptability and the use of individuals’ own creativity and drive.


The Quiet Green Revolution

The transformation underway in Africa is still growing relatively quietly, and in the context of significant ecological, social, economic and political challenges to agriculture. Yet, gains and spread have been remarkable, and the manner in which they have been achieved sets them apart from conventional development practice in important ways.

In all the cases described within the IJAS compendium, the gains described go far beyond increased yield and incomes. Positive environmental, social and economic externalities are described in every paper.

Also evident within every case study is the recognition that farmers are more than producers of agricultural output or passive users of technology. They are experts in resource stewardship, innovators and creative problem-solvers, teachers and entrepreneurs. The case studies demonstrate how sustainable intensification has involved and developed each of these innate capacities amongst the farmers involved. In turn, positive experiences drive further spread. Farmers learn from other farmers, and new ways of solving old problems spread organically and fast.

The Foresight cases demonstrate the centrality, relevance and potential of the human qualities of creativity, persistence, partnership and adaptability. While they describe many useful and novel institutional innovations and organisational models, authors comment on the power of individuals working at their best. Styger et al. (p. 74) conclude their paper with the following reflection:

“In our three-year experience, it became clear that success was due to the performance of many individuals who went beyond their daily duties, investing the time and energy to make this initiative succeed. It is clear that successful innovation development needs to be institutionalised, but there seems no recipe for it, given that success depends in so many respects on the initiative, persistence and dedication of individuals.”

Farmers, and especially smallscale farmers, are actively involved in their own lives, developing a sense of empowerment, competence and autonomy. While they are developing farm-based businesses and increasing yields and income, they are also acting as stewards of the land upon which we all depend. In many cases, farming practices – such as agroforestry – are nursing degraded areas back to life. The cultivation of diverse crops with a light footprint – such as in the use of small patches to grow vegetables or practice aquaculture – increases biodiversity on and around the field. In short, farms and farmers within these 40 cases (and others like them) tell vibrant, life-sustaining and inspiring stories. While challenges remain, they demonstrate a compelling vision of sustainable living.



Asaah E. K., Tchoundjeu Z., Leakey R. R. B., Takousting B., Njong J. and Edang I. 2011. Trees, agroforestry and multifunctional agriculture in Cameroon. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 110-119. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0553

Khan Z., Midega C., Pittchar J., Pickett J. and Bruce T. 2011. Push-pull technology: a conservation agriculture approach for integrated management of insect pests, weeds and soil health in Africa. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 162-170. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0558

Muhanji G., Roothaert R.L., Webo C. and Stanley M. 2011. African indigenous vegetable enterprises and market access for small-scale farmers in East Africa. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 194-202. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0561

Pretty J., Toulmin C. and Williams S. (eds.) 2011a. Sustainable Intensification: increasing productivity in African food and agricultural systems Special Issue of the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, Volume 9, Issue 1. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/tags20/9/1

Pretty J., Toulmin C. and Williams S. 2011b. Sustainable Intensification in African Agriculture. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 5-24. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0583

Roothaert R.L., Ssalongo S. and Fulgensio J. 2011. The Rakai chicken model: an approach that has improved fortunes for Ugandan farmers. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 222-231. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3763/ijas.2010.0563

Styger E., Aboubacrine G., Attaher M.A. and Uphoff N. 2011. The system of rice intensification as a sustainable agricultural innovation: introducing, adapting and scaling up a system of rice intensification practices in the Timbuktu region of Mali. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 67-75. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0549

Traore A. and Bickersteth S. 2011. Addressing the challenges of agricultural service provision: the case of Oxfam’s Strategic Cotton Programme in Mali. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability 9(1): 82-90. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3763/ijas.2010.0551


Zareen Pervez Bharucha is editorial assistant at the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability (IJAS) and research officer at the Essex Sustainability Institute. She is interested in issues of community participation in resource management, resilient agricultural systems and how people can build sustainable communities. To read more about IJAS and sustainable agricultural systems join the IJAS Facebook Page

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