Science - September 25, 2008

DEVELOPMENT per square meter

There is no such thing as African agriculture. Hence, there is no single approach for its development either. Develop small-scale solutions together with farmers instead. That's the recommendation of experts in Wageningen to Kofi Annan. ‘Within one hundred meters, in the same field, you sometimes already need several strategies.’

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‘There is no silver bullet that solves the agricultural problems in Africa’, says Ken Giller, professor of Plant Production Systems. ‘We need to work on best-fit options.’ Together with his colleagues André de Jager, Willem Takken and Kleis Oenema, Giller advised Kofi Annan with regard to successful strategies for stimulating African agriculture, the day after Annan’s speech during the opening of the academic year at Wageningen University.
Certainly, technological knowledge in the form of for example new high-yield or resistant crops can play a role in the development of African agriculture, states Giller. ‘But first you have to determine: who are the farmers we talking about and in which area are they?’ The production conditions greatly vary on this continent. Giller has charted that diversity in eight African countries within the project AfricaNuances, funded by the EU. It concerns farming systems, such as the production of cotton and grains in Mali, and growing baking bananas in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda as well as the cultivation of corn and peas in both Kenya and southern Africa.
By entering the data of various crops for a wide range of ecological conditions into a model, Giller has now developed a methodology that tracks down best-fit options. He hopes to use it in the next few years, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to develop an agricultural consultation system for African farmers.
During his inventory, Giller ran into knowledge that was highly applicable in practice. ‘We saw huge differences on the cornfields in Kenya. The corn close to the farmer’s house was often in very good shape, whereas the corn and growing at a large distance from the house was barely growing. Close to the house, the soil was well maintained and the farmer had used manure. Fertilizer would make sense there, as fertilizer works one hundred percent better in combination with manure. But on poor soils, often more than half the ground, that combination would not work. First you have to improve the soil. What I am trying to say is: within a hundred meters, in the same field, you already need several strategies.’
Giller hopes to achieve a stepwise increase in crop yield, so that farmers can invest more in for example fertilizer. What we mustn't forget, says researcher André de Jager of the LEI, is that this fertilizer also has to be available at remote locations at the right time. And not in large fifty-kilo bags, which the small farmers are unable to buy, but in smaller bags of ten kilos.
De Jager focuses on markets for small farmers in various African countries. He for example attempts to facilitate agreements between small-scale growers of sesame and sunflowers in Uganda, the merchants, and the processors of vegetable oils. So far, price agreements are rarely adhered to, adds De Jager. When the market price goes up, the farmers deliver to somebody else, but when it goes down, the merchants aren’t very interested. ‘I am trying to convince them that this may be favorable in the short term, but that price agreements offer advantages to all in the long-term.’

Pebbles in the pond
Critics will say that these are merely pebbles in the pond of African underdevelopment. Or: Can’t they come up with this on their own, how many more projects do we need? ‘Well’, replies De Jager, ‘A new high-yield crop on a test field which will be ready for practice in two years is much more impressive. Such a chain organization is much more complex and requires more words. But to us, it's essential. In all our projects, we closely cooperate with African researchers and market parties and we train supply chain facilitators, so that the local people will be able to handle themselves.’
Kleis Oenema, project coordinator at Van Hall Larenstein, also trains Africans. ‘Wageningen University is predominantly focused on strengthening the MSc program and PhD research, while we at Van Hall Larenstein are oriented toward curriculum development of BSc programs and teacher education.’ VHL has projects for competence-oriented education in Ethiopia, Benin, Rwanda, Mozambique and South Africa, and the recipe is always: teachers must become familiar with practice.
Sometimes this takes a highly practical form. ‘In Rwanda, we are carrying out a project in the realm of entrepreneurship for small farmers. The teachers of the university must set up an enterprise, for example a mushroom farm or a calf facility.’ And does this result in development? ‘It won't work if there is no money, in the form of micro credit’, says Oenema.
In jargon, we are talking about institutional development: local or regional organizations that have the capacity to share knowledge and skills with the farmers. That is a problem in Africa, say the experts in Wageningen, because the national research organizations (NARs) aren't exactly flourishing in most countries. The African leaders have never invested in agricultural (practical) research and the rural areas, explains De Jager; electoral considerations caused him to focus on the towns.

Turnaround
But De Jager has seen a turnaround, since international organizations such as the World Bank started putting agriculture at the top of their priorities for Africa. And the increasing food prices, which affect the voters in the towns, have also caused African governments to think things over. ‘I see better support for agriculture in Uganda, Mozambique and Ghana’, says De Jager. Giller is less optimistic. ‘The African leaders say that they want to invest more in agriculture, but those are words that haven't yet been translated into action. I spend three months the year in Africa, visit farmers in their homes and its often depressing to see how little they have.’
It's particularly the local research organizations and field stations that can help the small farmers out of their position of poverty, agree De Jager and Giller. The latter refers to the book ‘The White Man's Burden’ by former World Bank employee William Easterly. In 2006, he stated that on the basis of fifty years of development aid, Western donors must let go of their great ambitions, if they want to help poor people. Trying to solve the poor people's problems on the spot and little by little has the biggest chance for success, was Easterly’s conclusion.

Kofi Annan’s green revolution
‘For Africa to again feed itself, and join the league of agriculture-exporting regions, we need an African Green Revolution’, stated Kofi Annan during the opening of academic year at Wageningen University. ‘Our Green Revolution must embrace a comprehensive program of support for Africa’s smallholder farmers. It must recognize and protect the great diversity of Africa: our environments, crops, and cropping systems.’
Annan is a herdsman of AGRA, Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, the organization that came about three years ago when Annan was still Secretary-General of the United Nations. AGRA has developed programs in the area of seed improvement, soil fertility, water management, supply chain research and agricultural education. Since his departure from United Nations, Annan travels around the world to link partners and cosponsors with ‘his’ initiative. He tries to convince the western fertilizer industry and seed improvers to invest, so that their products become affordable to small African farmers. But he also hints at protection. All agricultural exporters in the world protect their farmers, only the African farmer is on his own, feels Annan. By that, he also is referring to the often limited agricultural research and education in Africa.
Main financer of AGRA so far has been the Gates Foundation, which in addition to health projects in Africa is now also investing in agriculture.
The Africa experts in Wageningen believe that Annan has the authority to unite the broad collection of organizations to his initiative. They mainly hope that he will be able to convince African governments to invest in agriculture.

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