Boosting African farm yields

For tens of millions of people in rural Africa, life has gotten harder in recent years. Reliant on erratic rains, working exhausted soil and hobbled by decades of underinvestment and neglect, many have sunk deeper into poverty as agriculture – the mainstay of the region’s economy – continues to face neglect. A growing number of African governments and UN and non-governmental agencies argue that unless urgent efforts are made to raise crop yields, build transportation and marketing systems and adopt modern, sustainable farming methods, the continent will fail to reach its development goals and the rural majority will reap only meagre harvests.

Large-scale agriculture operations should recognise the interests of small-scale farmers.

“The African farmer is primarily a woman farmer. And she is a good farmer who can feed her family and her continent if she is given the tools to do so.”

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of agriculture to Africa’s economic prospects. Some 65% of Africa’s labour force is engaged in agriculture, and the sector accounts for about 32% of the region’s GDP, according to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an independent organisation advocating for improvements in Africa’s agriculture. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), growth in sub-Saharan agriculture employment accounted for half of all employment growth between 1999 and 2009.

In recognition of its importance, proponents of the continental development plan, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, released NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) in 2003. Its goals are ambitious – to allocate at least 10% of national budgets to agriculture, to reach rural growth rates of 6% annually by 2015, integrate and invigorate regional and national agricultural markets, significantly increase agricultural exports, transform Africa into a “strategic player” in global agricultural science and technology, practice sound environmental and land management techniques, and reduce rural poverty.

‘Mined of life’

However, the challenges to success are as large as the potential consequences of failure. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates that more than 55m Africans were in need of international food aid in 2012. Since 1993, according to researchers for the African Union, annual population growth has outstripped food production on the continent, resulting in a rise in the number of hungry people.

One important obstacle to increased productivity has been the steady deterioration of Africa’s soils, noted Amit Roy, the head of the International Fertiliser Development Centre (IFDC), a US-based institute that promotes agricultural advancement in developing countries. “When farmers plant the same fields season after season and cannot afford to replace the soil nutrients taken up by their crops, the soil is literally mined of life,” he says.

An estimated 8m tons of nutrients are depleted annually. Replenishing the nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus and other minerals absorbed by plants is therefore vital to keep crop yields from declining. Part of the answer lies in better farming methods, including expanding the range of crops grown, improving soil conservation practices and utilising improved seeds and technology. But the key to launching a “revolution” in African agriculture, Roy said, is much greater use of fertiliser.

“Traditionally, African farmers use the slash-and-burn method,” he said. “They burn off a section of land and farm it for a season or two, then clear another plot and leave the old field fallow.” But population increases and growing land shortages have forced farmers to cultivate the same fields repeatedly, stripping the land of nutrients and resulting in smaller harvests and less income. Such pressures have also led farmers to clear land poorly suited for cultivation, which contributes to soil erosion and yields only marginal increases in harvests. An estimated 50,000 hectares of Africa’s forests and 60,000 hectares of savannah are lost to such methods annually – resulting in severe environmental degradation and contributing to the decline in agricultural production per capita.

According to the CAADP, African farmers currently use far less fertiliser than their counterparts in other regions of the world. “A strong relationship exists between the level of fertiliser use and cereal yield,” notes the programme.

High costs, short supply

Heavy reliance on imported fertilisers, combined with high transportation costs and the absence of suppliers in the countryside, has meant that African farmers pay between two and six times the average world price for fertiliser. With millions of African family farmers surviving on less than a dollar a day, imported fertiliser is simply unaffordable.

Yet evidence suggests that even modest increases in the use of fertiliser – whether nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium – can have dramatic results. In Ethiopia, one study found that just one bottle cap’s worth of chemical fertiliser on each plant increased millet yields exponentially. The technique, known as “micro-dosing”, is regarded as particularly appropriate for Africa’s small-scale farmers, because it reduces costs and avoids damage to fragile soils from excessive chemical use.