Despite technological advancement in the production and distribution of food, hunger and malnutrition still stalk many households around Africa.  Increased pressures to produce more sustainably on already constrained land and water resources, extreme climate events and unstructured market dynamics and broken value chains remain systemic bottlenecks that inclusive agricultural transformation must address.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, Sustainable Development Goal 2 on Zero Hunger seems more likely to extend beyond reach, with availability, access, utilization and stability of the global food systems having taken a downturn. Currently, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that about 821 million people are undernourished globally, with one in five located in Africa. Factors such as conflict, natural hazards, climate change and pests are set to increase the number of people going hungry in the continent.

With a rising population, ACFTA in the making in Africa, the opportunities to find sustainable ways in which Africa can increase production, profitably and sustainably were the premise for the series of webinars for experts to discuss evidence-based and eco-friendly technologies and approaches for enhancing the production, productivity, profitability and resilience small scale farming in Africa.

The first of three planned series – titled Sustainable Farming: Transforming Africa’s Landscapes and Livelihoodswas held on 13 July 2021, bringing together distinguished scientists from around the globe who deliberated on the various interpretations of agro-ecology, regenerative agriculture and sustainable farming concepts, as well as scientific evidences to date available for Africa to build resilient systems.

Aggie Konde, the webinar moderator and Vice-President for Program Innovation and Delivery at AGRA, said that the intent of the web-series is to create a common understanding about the differing narratives and co-develop an Africa led approach with multiple stakeholders and find unique and applicable solutions that speaks to the different farming systems in African while learning and un-learning from others and find solutions that are scalable, profitable, sustainable and resilient.

Dr. Tilahun Amede, Head of Resilience, Climate and Soil Fertility at AGRA presented the keynote paper and stated that we need home grown, comprehensive and integrated approach for achieving multiple goals of improving productivity and profitability of small-scale farmers, managing climate and market risks while enhancing soil health, and ecological services of landscapes. He singled out restoring soil fertility, increasing biomass and enhancing soil carbon sequestration as an entry point and a major pathway for profitability and resilience in food systems.

“We now have digital tools, farming system maps and climate services, all which can help us improve landscape management, re-greening and increase return on investments that our farmers are putting into fertilizer and improved seeds,” said Dr. Amede.

He said that Africa can use its ‘late comer advantage’ to leapfrog technologies and practices that solve for the production needs while harnessing and safeguarding the socio-environmental needs.

Dr. Sieg Snapp of Michigan State University said that scientists should not put too much emphasis on competing approaches such as organic agriculture, agro-ecology and regenerative agriculture, but focus more on the principles and the outcomes at farmer-level. She said that crop diversity with legumes is one of the approaches that had proved beneficial regardless of the chosen sustainability principle.

Prof. Ken Giller from Wageningen University emphasized the need to give farmers a range of options of agricultural technologies from which they may select the ones that are best suited to their site-specific needs and socio-economic conditions. To achieve this Africa needs a public-private sector extension system that works which gives credence to Africa’s innovative approach of farmer-centric extension models or VBA /CBA’s as a complimentary role to under-funded public sector extension systems.

“We need to articulate the principles and practices which are adaptable to the different farming and food systems across Africa, but also to internalize the strategic differences in investments between countries,” said Prof. John Dixon from the University of Queensland.

Prof. Dixon also stated that the potential to achieve food security and resilience across these farming systems is mainly dictated by access to productive agricultural resources and agricultural services, particularly input and output markets.  “To make African agriculture more productive, profitable and more resilient, we need to mainstream innovation, integration, impact-orientation, information, investment and infrastructure,” he said.

Dr. Ramadjita Tabo, Regional Director for ICRISAT in West and Central Africa, discussed the need to use critical external inputs to replenish highly mined African soils and minimize the impact of soil degradation on the environment.  He said that due to extremely low nutrient pool in African soils, limited biomass to recycle and land degradation, technologies for judicious use, such as micro-dosing of fertilizer, along with organic resources should be promoted.

Dr Kwesi Atta Krah of the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) program, said that Africa still lags far behind in use of inputs such as fertilizer, with the average African farmer using less than 20 kilograms per hectare of fertilizer compared to up to 200 kilograms in developed countries, Africa must remain environmentally conscious when promoting increased input use. He advocated for a healthy middle ground in simultaneously addressing food insecurity and the environment.

Prof. Chrisogonus Daudu of Nigeria’s National Agricultural Extension and Research Liaison Services blamed the collapse of public advisory services for low adoption of technology.  He said that in some African countries, an extension agent could be allocated up to 10,000 farmers, a challenge that has consigned smallholder farmers to low productivity, low incomes and low resilience.  He suggested a digitally enabled, private-sector supported extension model for more efficient advisory services.

Dr. Susan Chomba, Director of Vital Landscapes for Africa at the World Resources Institute said that in addition to a focus on productivity, stakeholders must also address two issues of post-harvest losses and equitable food access.  She said that positive outcomes for a transformed agricultural systems should include prosperity for smallholder farmers, resilience, environmental integrity and positive social impact especially for women and youth.

It was announced that the next webinar will focus on how the concepts of sustainable farming could be translated to action at a scale and the roles of the policy-makers and practitioners such as development partners and the private sector in institutionalizing the approaches.   to be held in a fortnight, would focus on private sector policies and issues of financing, with feedback from the first webinar being discussed.  She encouraged participants to continue sending in their input through the dedicated email

In his wrap-up comments, Dr. Tilahun said that AGRA, working with partners, would be keen to co-invest and capitalize on its past and current investments in extension services to ensure last-mile delivery of best-bet, context specific technologies at farm and landscape scales. The webinar created a forum for debate and joint learning among the different actors and promised to continue organizing and facilitating series of forums to reach to an African common position leading to sustainable, resilient, profitable, and productive farming in the continent.

The panelists concurred on the need to approach the continent using the different farming systems lense and concurred that it is not a one size fits all approach.  The five take home messages coming out of the webinar are:

  • We cannot compromise food security, resilience and sustainability over long time when it comes to Africa. Our principles should alien with these fundamental goals, while we address concerns on the environment.
  • African farming systems are diverse, prone to multiple risks, have low response capacity and require unique trajectories. Major adaptation and adjustment is required, embracing the diversity and local knowledge, to transform African food systems
  • From the context of Africa, where resource degradation is severed, food insecurity is a big issue, there is no scientific evidence suggesting reject judicious use of external inputs. Investment should priorate on building on lessons learned in Asia, local success stories and following sustainable farming principles.
  • We should avoid drawing to ideological clustering rather focus on the outcomes, healthy middle ground, leading to better and brighter future to African small-holder farmers.
  • Promoting and institutionalizing ‘Sustainable farming’ would require extensive engagement in capacity building at all levels, including research, extension, policy and farmer organizations. This should be augmented by digital extension, and designing local implementation practices for diverse local realities.