United Nations Year of Family Farming: Africans Show the Way with a New Vision for Agriculture

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    Despite successes, rampant hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa revolve around land degradation and rural poverty. Solutions require rehabilitating degraded farmland and developing a new source of income for farming households.

    Despite the successes of the Green Revolution we still have rampant hunger, malnutrition and poverty in Africa. It seems we still have not learnt that hunger, malnutrition, poverty and many of the other things on our ‘to-do’ wish list are part of a bigger and inter-related complex of issues that revolve around land degradation and rural poverty. A solution, I believe, has to address these issues by rehabilitating degraded farmland (which today affects 38% of agricultural land), as well as developing a new source of income for farming households. In Cameroon, smallholder family farmers have made great progress in this direction.

    Let’s start by looking at why we have not made better progress towards solving Africa’s agricultural problems. Maybe it is to do with the size and complexity of all the interacting factors impacting on the lives of people scattered across numerous sectors and strata of society. Additionally, the ‘development’ agenda is very multi-disciplinary and is partitioned between rural and urban situations. Furthermore, it requires some detailed understanding of biophysical and socio-economic issues best addressed within holistic integrated rural development programmes. Unfortunately, however, we live in a world where problems and solutions are confined to disconnected silos. How to proceed is also influenced by the very different perspectives of people depending on whether they are looking at the issue from industrial or the least developed countries. 

    Land degradation and rural poverty

    Many of the problems arising from poverty in urban areas of least developed countries stem from inward migration from the countryside, thus central to making progress across all the development targets is tackling the root causes of land degradation and rural poverty. The biggest issue in the rural tropics is that actual crop yields are well below the yield potential of modern varieties (this difference is called the Yield Gap). The reasons for this are complex. First, there is the crippling decline of soil fertility and a loss of agroecological functions. This results in land degradation and the loss of biodiversity above- and below-ground. This is then exacerbated by persistent high levels of poverty which deny farmers access to modern technologies, such as fertilisers and other agricultural inputs (1)Consequently we have billions of marginalised people, many of them farming households, trapped in poverty and suffering from malnutrition, hunger and poor health. They also lack access to clean water, medical and other social services, and opportunities for education and employment – indeed all the things highlighted by the Post-2015 Development Agenda. 

    Closing the Yield Gap

    To try to get a better understanding of the issues in rural Africa, staff of the World Agroforestry Centre asked farmers in Cameroon what they would like to see from agriculture. This was twenty years ago. Their illuminating and unexpected request was for the chance to reintroduce and cultivate the indigenous trees from which they used to gather fruits, nuts, leaves, medicinal products etc. when they were hunter-gatherers before the destruction of forests and woodlands. The response to this request has led to a multi-disciplinary innovation to address the complex set of issues driving the downward spiral of land degradation and social deprivation in which land degradation drives poverty and poverty drives land degradation. This is the cause of the Yield Gap. To close this Yield Gap it is necessary to reverse the downward spiral by rehabilitating the land and creating a source of income. In simple terms, this involves a 3-step approach (2) which can easily be adapted to the needs of different sets of biophysical and socio-economic situations found in different locations. 


    Rehabilitation involves restoring the ecological health of the farming system to address declining yields and to promote food security by ensuring the proper functioning of the agro-ecosystem (Step 1). Central to this agro-ecological approach, is the diversification of farming systems with a wider range of crops (the planned biodiversity), which create niches for numerous natural organisms (the unplanned biodiversity) that are vital for the completion of complex food chains and the closure of numerous interactive life cycles. These, together with nutrient, carbon and water cycling, perform nature’s ecological balancing tricks that ensure the proper functioning of the agro-ecosystem to address declining yields. 

    In Cameroon, the farmers said they wanted to grow the indigenous fruits and nuts that they used to gather from the forest. Diversifying the farm with these local tree species has many ecological advantages, but, even more importantly their products are also highly nutritious and marketable, as well as being traditionally and culturally important. These species also have large tree-to-tree genetic variation which offers enormous potential for the simple, inexpensive and rapid development of horticultural cultivars with superior quality and commercial potential. The domestication of these species is Step 2 and it is being done successfully in participatory mode by the farmers within their family farms.

    The final step is to commercialise and promote local cottage industries adding value to these products (Step 3). As a result of this third step it is becoming clear that, in addition to getting farmers onto the bottom rung of the ladder out of poverty, men and women in villages and small towns are setting up small businesses and cottage industries to process tree products for wider markets. This occurs as part of an integrated rural development programme that is introducing access to micro-finance and a range of training programmes. This is creating business and employment opportunities in value-adding that lift communities out of poverty. An important ‘take-home message’ from this is that while agro-ecological approaches to farming can substantially enhance food security, it is the addition of commercialisation which provides the incentive for further diversification and which lifts small family farmers out of poverty. 

    The ‘Trees of Life’

    The second step, mentioned above, is crucial in solving Africa’s problems and it is one where Africa has enormous untapped potential. It is also where great progress is being made. The World Agroforestry Centre, together with other research teams around the world, has developed a participatory approach engaging local communities to domesticate these ‘Trees of Life’ using appropriate village-based technologies which can be implemented by poor farmers in remote villages around the tropics. This process and how it addresses big global issues is the subject of a book by this article’s author (3). The trees are also of course long-lived perennial plants that sequester carbon both in their biomass, in the soil and in other vegetation. 

    Albeit on a small scale (around 10,000 farmers over 500 villages), the results of this initiative in Cameroon have been spectacular and the integration of these trees in local farming systems has acted as a catalyst for the stimulation of social, economic and environmental benefits – a list too long to present here, except to say that lives are improving and the average income from community nurseries has risen from US$145, US$16,000, and US$28,350 after two, five, and ten years, respectively. One consequence of this is that some youths have decided to stay in the community rather than seek urban employment because they can see a future in their villages. These benefits are addressing many of the constraints arising from the failure of modern agriculture - malnutrition, poverty and environmental degradation, including climate change. These are the same constraints that are responsible for the loss of productivity, the global food crisis and hunger in nearly half of the world population. 

    The most innovative thing about this approach is that it is based on a request by poor marginalised African farmers who are struggling to survive by scratching a living from seriously degraded farmland while living outside the cash economy and so without the money to take advantage of modern technologies. Their illuminating and unexpected request for the chance to reintroduce and cultivate the indigenous trees producing fruits, nuts, leaves, and medicinal products has actually identified the key which unlocks the Rural Development Syndrome (relief from hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation and loss of ecological services). A list of 12 lessons from this study was presented at a recent Food and Agriculture Organization workshop on Food Security in Rome (4). This is based on the delivery of Multifunctional Agriculture to simultaneously rehabilitate degraded farmland and diversify poor smallholder farming systems with the types of indigenous species that the farmers in Cameroon were looking for. These principles point the way to integrated rural development through the sustainable intensification of tropical agriculture, rural business development for economic growth, and enhanced well-being for billions of marginalised people. 

    Hopefully, “a new Eden is around the corner” if we put our minds to it and put our money where our mouths are. This could be the “kick-off” to a match were we start scoring many of the Post-2015 Development Goals through an explosion in sustainably intensified family farming in Africa and beyond. 

    Dr. Roger Leakey is the Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation, UK.









    1. See p. 192 of UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review 2013 Wake up Before it’s too Late at http://unctad.org/en/pages/PublicationWebflyer.aspx?publicationid=666.
    2. A more detailed description is available at: http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/blog/index.php/2013/01/three-steps-to-bridging-the-yield-gap/
    3. R. Leakey. 2012. Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture. CABI. http://blog.worldagroforestry.org/index.php/2012/07/24/leakey-book-says-trees-of-life-could-nourish-the-planet-build-wealth/ 
    4. R. Leakey. Twelve Principles for Better Food and More Food from Mature Perennial Agroecosystemswww.rogerleakey.com/publication. 


    This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 3, Issue 1

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