In the 1980s a group of farmers in the West African country of Burkina Faso decided to fight back against years of drought by resuscitating their barren rock-hard land to grow more food than only what they needed to survive.
Traditionally, seeds were planted in small pits, known as zaï, hacked into the stony dry earth, but in the northern province of Yatenga, farmers rehabilitated degraded land by improving this traditional method, according to a World Bank paper.
They put manure into the pits, which attracts termites. The termites dig channels, allowing water to infiltrate and be held in the soil; they also digest the organic matter in the manure and make nutrients available to the plant roots, bringing good outputs of sorghum and millet. The farmers did not stop there - they also put in the seeds of trees, and woodland has been re-established.
Yacouba Sawadogo, who farms near Gourga village, four kilometres west of Ouahigouya, the provincial capital of Yatenga, began the concept of "market days", where farmers could exchange information on adapting zaï. This has grown into an extension service for farmers across the province, and even schools for zaï agriculture.
"The use of zaï allows farmers to make larger areas of land suitable for growing crops and trees, to increase production, to reduce production risks and to improve household food security," said the World Bank study.
Around the same time, government-backed initiatives to rehabilitate arid and backward savannah belts in Brazil's Cerrado and Thailand's Northeast regions have since turned them into global commodities players, said a new joint study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Bank, Awakening Africa's Sleeping Giant - Prospects for Commercial Agriculture in the Guinea Savannah Zone and Beyond.
Agriculture has "lagged badly in Africa ... because of government and donor neglect. The real challenges lie in developing the needed infrastructure, technologies, input supply and credit systems, marketing institutions, and a supporting policy environment," said Peter Hazell, a leading agricultural development expert.
The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) for "rapid small farm led growth" by the African Union (AU) is one of several strategies mapped out to boost food production and economic growth; about 80 percent of Africa's workforce consists of small-scale farmers.
But the "big question is whether governments and donors will, despite much recent G8 and AU rhetoric, get serious enough to put in the required resources and political commitment," said Hazell.
"The big private sector has a key role to play too, but, left to itself, it will favour plantation approaches for export markets, much as we are already seeing through large land purchases in Africa by China and some of the Gulf States."
The joint FAO and World Bank study said it was not too late and the continent still has a chance - commercial production is the way to beat food insecurity and poverty.
|Big question is whether governments and donors will, despite much recent G8 and AU rhetoric, get serious enough to put in the required resources and political commitment|
At least 25 African countries with millions of hectares of poor soils fed by erratic rain could become major global producers of cassava, cotton, maize, soybeans, rice and sugar is the study's upbeat conclusion, with some provisos.
The land lies in the Guinea Savannah - an area twice as large as that planted to wheat worldwide - a swathe of potential fertility that runs from the coasts of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Senegal eastwards to the Ethiopian border, then veers southeast to cover parts of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo before spreading across the continent over large areas of Angola, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and western Madagascar.
Only 10 percent of the Guinea Savannah - covering an estimated 600 million hectares - is farmed. "Commercial agriculture in Africa can and should involve smallholders to maximize growth and spread benefits widely," said Michael Morris, Lead Agricultural Economist with the World Bank in Madagascar.
"Large-scale mechanized production does not offer any obvious cost advantages, except under certain very specific circumstances, and is far more likely to lead to social conflict."
The findings of the study were based on an examination of the success achieved in Brazil and Thailand, and a comparative analysis of evidence from case studies in Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia. Thailand and Brazil show that poverty reduction is greater and local demand is stimulated when small-scale farmers are involved in development.
Photo: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO)
|Guinea Savannah is an area twice as large as that planted to wheat worldwide|
The swing factors
Based on global supply and demand projections, the Guinea Savannah should focus on cassava, cotton, maize, rice, soybeans and sugar, but productivity levels and farm sizes are making agriculture unsustainable.
On the plus side, Africa's producers are generally competitive with imports in domestic markets, and production costs are much lower. Nigerian farmers can produce and deliver soybeans to Ibadan, the country's third largest city, at 62 percent of the cost of imported soybeans.
Regional markets appear to offer African farmers the most promising opportunities for expansion in the short- to medium-term, and demand in regional markets can be expected to grow rapidly as a result of population growth, income gains, and accelerating urbanization.
The biggest drawbacks are weak national and international financial and political commitment at the scale seen in Brazil and Thailand, because Africa's producers are generally not competitive in global markets, with the exception of cotton, sugar and maize, which in some years can be exported profitably by some of the case study countries.
The problem is that producers often have to absorb high international and domestic logistics costs. Mozambican farmers, who are highly competitive in producing cassava for the domestic market, would have to cut the costs of domestic production and logistics by more than 80 percent to export it competitively to Europe.
Unlike Brazil and Thailand three decades ago, Africa's producers face tough competition, and product specification requirements have become much more stringent.
What needs to be done
Land policy reform and the need to pump in money top the list. "Providing secure and transferable land rights is critical to protect the interests of local populations," said Guy Evers, Africa Service Chief in the FAO Investment Centre.
Governments must help entrepreneurial farmers acquire unused land in areas of low population density, and provide incentives to invest in increasing productivity, said the study.
Institutions and equitable enforcement structures should be set up to help small-scale farmers access land and engage profitably in commercial agriculture.
Successful commercialization of agriculture depends on well-functioning markets. "A key challenge is knowing when the state should step aside and give greater scope to the private sector as markets for these services mature, as it is easy for the state to overstep and crowd out private initiative," cautioned the study.
A public-private partnership to establish commodity exchanges using electronic communication technology is being piloted in Ethiopia as an important step towards an integrated national market.
Input subsidies, which helped improve food production in countries like Malawi, should be carefully scaled up in a "market-smart" approach, as they were not financially sustainable. The subsidies could be scaled back and eliminated once farmers became experienced in using them and had grown financially.
Creating self-sustaining rural financial systems, and linking rural savings and loans associations more effectively to broader commercial banking systems, would provide greater financial intermediation and diversification of risk, the study suggested.
Using the Guinea Savannah predominantly for agriculture will inevitably bring some environmental costs, but the study found that agriculture can also benefit the environment.
"Commercialization of agriculture through intensification can reduce environmental damage by slowing the spread of agriculture into fragile and/or environmentally valuable lands," said the World Bank's Morris.
"However, intensification brings with it risks of environmental damage through destruction of vulnerable ecosystems and the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides."
Governments should monitor the environmental impacts of agricultural intensification and implement measures to reduce or avoid damage, but as FAO's Evers noted, "Fortunately, there is a wealth of experience from other countries on which to draw."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions