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At risk of "war for food, space"

Millet is a staple food in Niger, March 2011
Millet is a staple food in Niger (Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN)

High population density, low government support for agriculture, and poor infrastructure and farming methods have resulted in chronic food insecurity in Africa's Great Lakes region, experts say, despite a climate conducive to growing various crops.

"We have a very big challenge within the Central Africa region: can the small land support the population we have?” posited Nteranya Sanginga, director-general designate of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA).

At a recent conference organized by the Consortium for Improving Agriculture–based Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, Sanginga said intensive and relevant agricultural research could help to feed the steadily growing population.

“If we don’t do that, we could be going into a situation of war - war for food, war for space,” he said.

Predominantly small farms, about less than half a hectare, make agricultural intensification - increasing productivity per unit area of land - necessary to help meet increasing food demands.

Two countries in the region, Rwanda and Burundi, have high population densities estimated at about 400 inhabitants per square kilometre.

Outside sub-Saharan Africa, agricultural intensification has largely been driven by combining inorganic fertilizer and agrichemical inputs with intensive tillage and improved varieties. But experts are recommending more sustainable intensification, involving food systems in harmony with the environment.

“Given the food demand pressures and the environmental constraints (carbon, water, biodiversity), there seems little alternative to an intensification pathway for agriculture – but it needs to be a sustainable one,” notes a study, Sustainable intensification and the food security challenge, presented at the conference.

Cash and will

In sub-Saharan Africa, where high fertilizer costs mean low usage, rising agricultural productivity has often followed the provision of more land, but this too has its limitations.

“The clearing of forests and woodland and cultivation of grasslands is going to generate a significant load of greenhouses gases on an already overloaded atmosphere – with consequences of climate change and potential for negative feedback on agricultural productivity,” according to the study.

Besides on-farm approaches, experts at the conference emphasized the need for improved agricultural financing and political will towards achieving regional food security.

“The fact that the green revolution bypassed most of Africa has a reason in finance; the lack of political will is also a reason,” Henk Breman, principal scientist at IFDC a food security NGO, said.

With little government support and weak rural infrastructure, as well as high transportation and fertilizer costs, farmers struggle to switch to high input, high output farming.

According to an International Food Policy Research Institute report titled, Green Revolution, Curse or Blessing, “simply adding to the pile of food will not be enough”.

"Typically, governments must make a concerted effort to ensure that small farmers have fair access to land, knowledge, and modern inputs," it states, adding that there is a need for agricultural technologies that can profitably be adopted on all farm sizes.

Boosting production

Shem Michael Ndabikunze, director of the Rwanda Agriculture Board, said increased agricultural investment was already paying off in Rwanda where food production has increased in the past few years.

He said an emphasis on the value chain, all activities from the field to the market, had helped to boost production. At present, 53 percent of agricultural land in Rwanda is consolidated, meaning that farmers have access to improved seed and subsidized fertilizer, Ndabikunze added.

Rwanda’s food security outlook through to December remains satisfactory, with most markets in the country adequately supplied, according to FEWS NET.

Ndabikunze said Rwanda had also increased its public investment in agriculture to 10.1 percent of GDP in 2010, expected to reach 12 percent in 2011. The Maputo Declaration by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) recommends members allocate at least 10 percent of their GDP to agriculture.

Success stories such as Rwanda and Malawi offer hope, says IITA’s Sanginga. A Farm Input Subsidy Programme introduced in Malawi in 2005 has helped to improve national food security and the productivity of smallholder farmers.

But the situation is different in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where insecurity often limits access to fields. Poor agricultural extension services have also limited farmers’ access to new farming methods.

“Extension is important not just for access to food but also in reducing rural poverty,” said Ann Degrande of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

Supporting farmers

Serah Kimaru-Muchai of Kenyatta University in Kenya said it was important to use the right communication channels to deliver research products to the farmers, including workshops and training by demonstration.

“There is a saying... once I see I will not forget; farmers prefer to see these technologies being demonstrated to them,” said Kimaru-Muchai, adding that it was important to train individual farmers in these new technologies as “farmers are the most accessible to other farmers”.

Tools to help farmers choose the best types of crops, amount and type of soil inputs, are often not available, according to a study, Exploring the scope of fertilizer use in East Africa, co-authored by Lydia Wairegi of the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International.

The study examined the expected benefits of fertilizer use by relating the value of yield farm gate prices to the value of fertilizer equivalent of nutrients removed for selected crops.

“There is a need to enable farmers to tell if I invest in maize, I may make more profit than in other crops... Even as we do research, we should have it in our minds that farmers face difficulties making decisions...,” she said.

According to Hans Henner, a World Food Prize Laureate, it is clear there is a need to need to produce more food “but the question is how?”

“If we put life back into the soil we will get water back into the soil," Henner said. "The soil is a living organism. Agriculture needs to be redesigned. It’s at a crossroads, which is why we need to take it into the future.”


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:

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