Our Burning Planet

OP-ED

We need a revolution in African farming — regenerative agriculture could be the catalyst

The author argues that regenerative agriculture promotes biodiversity, water infiltration and works with system-wide ecosystem processes. (Photo: Wolfgang Borchers / Pixabay)

Regenerative agriculture, which involves special techniques to cultivate nurture-rich soils that also trap greenhouse gases, can initially be time and labour intensive. But farmers who stick with it are witnessing enormous returns.

Regenerative agriculture could transform farming in Africa, increase food production through better land and water management, create millions of jobs and help trap greenhouse gasses — combating climate change.

So why aren’t emerging farmers adopting it faster?

On a continent where emerging farmers are kept in the dark about the true value of their produce, or fail to receive adequate warnings about climate-related threats, the answer is as simple as it is tragic: access. 

To create a second green revolution — one removed from the harmful practices of the first in 1945 with its synthetic artificial fertilisers, pesticides, and genetically modified seed varieties — we need to better support emerging farmers to take up this practice.

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What is regenerative agriculture?

The practice involves special techniques to cultivate nurture-rich soils that also trap greenhouse gases. The method offers the most promising avenue to intensify production, rehabilitate landscapes and create more resilient agroecosystems.

The benefits to date have been astounding. A report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)  demonstrated the following benefits:

  • Conservative modelling estimates that through the adoption of regenerative agriculture, produce could increase up to at least 13% by 2040. However, some businesses have already demonstrated food production increases of 68% – 300% are possible;
  • It could create upwards of one million additional full-time jobs (in farming, processing, transport, etc) by 2030, reaching nearly five million jobs by 2040;
  • If it were adopted and practised on just 50% of African farmland, it could equate to $17-billion in savings to farmers and companies each year; and
  • Smallholder farmers could see household incomes rise by $150 per year from current earnings.

Although regenerative agriculture can initially be time and labour intensive, businesses that stick with it are witnessing enormous returns.

So what’s the way forward?

Emerging farmers must be supported better. They need real-time information on factors that affect their outputs, such as temperature, rainfall, pests and diseases. But in-person specialised extension service support is rare. In some countries, the ratio of extension officers to farmers often ranges as high as 1:5,000.

In the gap, digital technology is increasingly proving to be a critical enabler for the continent’s smallholder farmers. In one example, a swarm of locusts devastated farms in Uganda along with the Horn of Africa in February 2020. There was no early warning system. The locusts came after sporadic drought and rain, their appearance stunning officials from the Uganda National Meteorological Authority.

Fast forward to early February 2022, and an AI company called Atmo AI sent a beta version of its supercomputer to Uganda. It offered weather forecasting services at a fraction of the cost of traditional supercomputers and data centres typically needed to make weather forecasts. This digital innovation ensured that farmers will be prepared for weather-related threats, including the pests that in the past seemingly appeared out of nowhere.  

Information services assist farmers in improving their on-farm practices, helping them make more informed decisions. A simple resource like modular education materials that can be accessed through mobile phones is spurring farmers to adopt regenerative practices. Think: programmes on how to manage a livestock rotation calendar, mulching, use of manure and composting, cover cropping and highlighting the benefits of no-till agriculture.

Plus these resources can educate farmers on the business of running a farm, such as identifying profitable crops for export or what is being demanded locally. This reduces their financial risk — and prevents them from being exploited. Many small farmers often sell their produce for well below market value, unaware that the food receives huge markups before reaching the shelves for consumers to buy.

A second way to reach and empower emerging farmers is through agricultural innovation hubs. This model is being tested by German development agency GIZ across many African countries. These hubs ensure that innovations and technology reach farmers, helping to increase the incomes of smallholder farmers in particular. It also boosts regional employment and food security and drives environmental awareness in farming.

Ultimately, a shift towards this more sustainable, higher-gain form of farming would have huge knock-on benefits for the continent. Agriculture is still an important mainstay to African economies. Consider the following:

  • Agriculture made up 53.3% of the total exports from the East African Community to the rest of the world in 2015. That translates to about $15.1-billion worth of exports;
  • Agriculture contributes upwards of 52% of total employment in sub-Saharan Africa, with half of that being women; and
  • Of the 135 million people globally suffering from acute food insecurity, more than half (73 million) are from Africa.

We’re facing a new agricultural revolution, and we must ensure that no one gets left behind — especially vulnerable smallholder farmers. Considering these farmers produce 80% of the food in sub-Saharan Africa, it is critical that we bring them along and improve their lot. DM

Malik Dasoo is junior researcher with the African Climate Foundation. He has an MSc in International Land and Water Management from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, specialising in soil physics and sustainable land management. He has previously worked with the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) on their natural capital accounting and ecological infrastructure programmes.

 

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