The issues of high food prices, high fuel prices, and the recent Global recession, continue to drum in our ears. It is time we did something about it. There is a need to increase productivity and diversify local food crop varieties in order to meet food security and rural development needs in Africa.
Like all other continents, Africa is grappling with achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Strategies in the MDG target both the urban as well as the rural populations in Africa. In order to achieve the Millennium Development Goal -number one of reducing hunger by half by 2015, efforts are needed to give a voice to the hungry and to strengthen governments’ capacity to meet these obligations.
The systematic documentation of the success of the farming communities of Tigray, Ethiopia, using ecological agricultural practices such as composting, water and soil conservation activities, and crop diversification, has reached its 12th year and is growing strong. Tigray is one of the most degraded Regions of Ethiopia, yet over the 12 years of the introduction and expansion of ecological agriculture, the use of chemical fertilizers has been steadily decreasing while total grain production has been steadily increasing
Many more diverse and creative practices based on rich traditional knowledge and agrobiodiversity are found in Africa. Whether it is survival on “marginal lands”, or building resilience to the negative impacts of climate change, pests and diseases, African farming communities and their partners (governments, agricultural professionals and NGOs) are becoming effective in tackling poverty through ecological agriculture. In addition, to reducing pesticide residues in agricultural products, ecological farming opens up the opportunity for better rural livelihoods, better health and specifically it elevates the profile of Africa’s smallholder farmers to be recognized as a farmers that produces wholesome products for self food sufficiency as well as for the increasing global markets and fetching better prices for their organic products.
As most poor farmers, particularly in degraded lands are not able to afford external inputs, the principles and approach of the Tigray project, based on raising soil fertility through ecological natural resource management, have offered the farmers a real and affordable means to break out of poverty and obtain food security. Among the benefits demonstrated in the Tigray project are: Increased yields;Better availability of water; Decrease in pests and disease populations, with fewer troublesome weeds; reversed land degradation; Increased incomes and assured food security.
The challenge is to speed up and share the word of such knowledge, practices and experiences so that policies can be developed to foster and harness the contributions of ecological agriculture to food security climate change and environmental degradation.
Farming in Africa is a world apart from farming in Europe or North America. Agriculture is the main source of income for roughly two third of all Africans, compared to fewer than 5% of those in Europe and the USA. In Africa it is the small farmers that dominate, not large farms: 80% of the farms are smaller than two ha. in size. Also 90% of the farmers practice diversified crop production rather than specialized mono cropping. Chemical use is extremely low -9kg/hac as compared to 117/ha in the industrialized world. Mechanization is nearly non-existent.
The case for ecological agriculture is a special one; it is associated with rural communities, and resource poor farmers. Income is the biggest difference between science -poor farming in Africa and science-rich-farming in Europe and North America.
Robert Paarlberg in his book “Why Science is kept out of Africa” portrays this farmer to be a woman; and this is a fact because (60-80%) of farm labour in Africa is provided by women who work most of the daylight hours preparing meals and raising children in addition to tending crops. She may not be able to read or write and lives in a dwelling made of sticks, mud and thatch, with no plumbing or electricity. Water and wood for cooking must be carried in. She keeps some goats, grows some vegetables in a garden area close to her house and tends small plots of land a short a walk away where she plants food crops such as yams, maize, beans sorghum, millet or cassava. She uses simple tools like handheld hoes, planting sticks, machetes and wooden ploughs or animal tractions.
In the years when the rains are good and these crops do well, she will be able to meet her family’s immediate needs, and have a small surplus to be bartered or sold locally. Her fields have no irrigation, so if the rains fail, her crops will also fail. She uses little or no chemical fertilizer because these are expensive, because she lacks access to credit. Her children often join her in the field either strapped to her back if infants or once they can walk, kept busy tending to goats and pulling weeds. African women farmers are hard working, skillful and highly resourceful. Because they are poor they cannot afford to waste time, labor or materials. Yet because their minimal tools, seeds, and input supplies are so limited, even the most persistent efforts bring little reward. Shultz-1964 describes them as efficient but poor.
This farmer-who is not specialized does not engage in factory farming. She plants mixed varieties in poly-culture and not monocultures, she has a food system that is traditional, local, non-industrial and very slow. She uses few purchased inputs and in is the defacto organic. To her dilemma, an in order for her to export, she is also challenged with the same serious crosscutting issues.
Because her crops are of little interest to private seed companies, they do not buy seeds, Governments and corporate science pay little attention to their needs; as such they are at the mercy of philanthropic foundations and NGOs and these have taken the lead in funding and managing any technology upgrades for this farmer.
The question is- can African Governments ignore this farmer, and be able to address food security needs, the current high food prices, and achieve the Millennium Development Goals? To export their products, farmers must not only comply with increasingly stringent food safety measures and WTO- SPS requirements but also with Private Standards that are set and demanded by consumers in developed countries. Some of these standards include the EU food safety laws, the British standards Consortium, EUROPGAP among others. Most of these standards have established Maximum residue Levels for pesticides with which the farmer must comply. The tool of proof is a Pest Risk Analysis, (PRA), which should provide the data that these standards have been complied with. Complying with the required standards provides trading opportunities to all countries. For our farmers however, the cost of compliance is too high.
The African Union Commission must respond to their needs in developing policies that will not only favour them, but policies that will address the all encompassing and pressing needs of food security and food safety, environmental degradation, and climate change.
By Mme Tumusiime Rhoda
Commissioner, Rural Economy and Agriculture,
African Union Commission
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