One smallholder’s warning for the future of farming in Africa

Mama Sara is a farmer in Mbola in the Tabora region of western Tanzania. I visited Mama Sara in late March of this year. Like other smallholder farmers in the area, her farm plots were covered with a patchwork of stunted, sad-looking maize.

She told me that the rains have become so unpredictable in recent years that she no longer knows when to plant. Moreover, the soils on her farm have been degraded from years of growing the same crop in the same place with few to no inputs. To hedge her bets, this year Mama Sara planted four maize crops in the hopes that one might yield a healthy crop, a goal that seemed sadly elusive, despite her best efforts.

As a quick fix, some of Mama Sara’s neighbours are planting tobacco as a cash crop. However, tobacco production is driving deforestation in the Tabora region and elsewhere in Tanzania, as trees are cut down to produce the charcoal needed to cure tobacco. On an afternoon walk, I stumbled upon an area of newly cut trees, which were soon to become charcoal. Among the stacked poles were several beautiful, valuable and huge mature mahogany trees. The farmers looking for a supply of charcoal had no idea of the value of those poles if exported to Europe or the US for furniture, boat construction or musical instruments.

Without question, African farmers need better yields and better profits. But this is only a piece of the bigger picture. How can smallholder farmers and African governments increase land productivity and well-being without destroying nature, the unseen support system for agriculture and for people?

Solutions to the challenges Mama Sara and others face will require a multi-layered approach. However, a lot of the existing knowledge of ecosystems and agriculture is local and scattershot. As such, policymakers, landowners and the private sector must make important land use and land management decisions based on a partial and incomplete understanding of the situation.

The simple truth is that the business-as-usual, sector-by-sector, siloed approach to decision making isn’t providing the answers that smallholder farmers like Mama Sara need to forge resilient, sustainable livelihoods. To grow Africa sustainably, we need “business unusual”.

This is why I took part in the Grow Africa Investment Forum during the World Economic Forum on Africa, to talk about Vital Signs – a new monitoring system that provides the metrics and indicators to change the way decisions are made for managing agriculture, ecosystems and human well-being. Vital Signs was designed and tested in partnership with the government of Tanzania in SAGCOT, the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania, and in the Southern Highlands. It has also been successfully piloted in Rwanda, and is poised to launch in Ghana and Ethiopia.

In Africa today and worldwide, decisions about sustaining food production, protecting pollinators and safeguarding biodiversity, about water, and about meeting energy needs are not separate, independent decisions. They are interconnected. Everyone – from farmers and governments to donors and the private sector – needs a new, integrated approach to decision making. The planet must be seen as a system, not as an assemblage of separate, disconnected pieces.

Sandy Andelman is executive director, Vital Signs Monitoring System, Conservation International. This article first appeared on the World Economic Forum blog.