Science - September 14, 2011

Labour shortage hampers sustainable farming in Africa

Western organizations want to make agriculture in Africa sustainable by increasing yields per hectare. But they fail to take into account the availability of labour, says French doctoral researcher Frederik Baudron in his thesis.

A sorghum farmer in Zimbabwe
It sounds great: African farmers should raise production per hectare so that they make more efficient use of resources and spare the surrounding natural environment. The FAO promotes this approach under the name 'conservation agriculture'. But the reality is tricky, as Baudron noticed in Mbire district in Zimbabwe.
In this region a lot of agricultural land has been cleared for the production of sorghum and cotton. Baudron compared the ecological footprint of the two crops. Cotton cultivation emerged as far more harmful for the environment: one kilo of cotton requires 60 percent more land, twice as much nitrogen and 50 percent more potassium than a kilo of grain. Yet cotton production was rising the fastest in this region. The limiting factor in Mbire district appears to be labour, not land. There is not enough labour in the region to weed grain fields by hand. This limitation causes farmers to opt for extensive grain farming, and not to embrace FAO projects.
The advocates of 'conservation agriculture' should be less focussed on technical problems such as low productivity in African agriculture, and take a better look at socio-economic factors such as the availability of labour, says Baudron. Ignoring local practices causes many a development project to fail.
Baudron received his PhD on 8 September from Ken Giller, professor of Plant Production Systems.