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23 - 30 January 2008 
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Agricultural Techniques for Africa

Africa is a continent in rapid flux. The systems that served it in the pre-colonization era still have deep roots. Although the old systems are wanting in serving the needs of a new era, many of the new systems imposed in the advent of the colonial era have not served the continent well. One of Africa’s greatest challenges is therefore to find compromises between the old and the new that work for it. The Africa of today is a sometimes awkward mix of the old/new and the imported/ indigenous.

Africa ought to ask  awkward questions and unravel the inconsistencies which the promoters of various ideas about the continent’s agriculture might be quite happy to sweep under the carpet. Not being critically analytical has made the continent the testing ground for all sorts of schemes that have not improved the continent’s fortunes.Being critical is not necessarily rejecting anything. It is merely trying to make the most informed choice of compromises, with the best prospects of achieving the desired goals.

Some agricultural NGOs oppose fertilizer use on environmental and philosophical grounds. Struggling African farmers are out of necessity motivated in their decisions by immediate pragmatic considerations.Should fertilizer be available and be relatively cheap in price (such as through a government subsidy in Malawi), farmers would enthusiastically use it. In such cases, NGOs opposing fertilizer use appear as if they are churlishly unwilling to give credit to an innovation that works simply because it flies in the face of a central underpinning of their whole reason for existence.

It might be far more effective for them to say, “we concede the role  fertilizer can play and we congratulate Malawi for its maize bumper harvest, but we wish to contribute to sustained bumper harvests by pointing out some of the pitfalls of over-reliance on fertilizer.” Acting as if there is something inherently evil about fertilizer, and refusing to admit its benefits along with its problems, simply makes it easier for “mainstream” agriculturalists and government officials to dismiss these NGOs as fringe groups.

On the other side are those who consider fertilizer as a panacea for Africa’s soil fertility woes. The obvious issues of its high cost and polluting effects are what are most often discussed. But not discussed often enough is the issue that apart from the problems of costs and environmental effects, fertilizer only addresses the symptom of a problem, not its causes.

No matter how accessible and affordable it is made to African farmers, fertilizer cannot be an answer to the basic problem of soils that are losing the structural and chemical properties that make them fertile.Fertilizer can only be a partial or stop-gap measure to the issue of soil fertility.More natural means of restoring and maintaining soil fertility must also be embraced.Without that, the soils that are producing bumper harvests with the aid of fertilizer today are also being  stripped of the nutritive properties that they require every year. This in effect is creating a type of fertilizer-demand pyramid scheme that will inevitably collapse on economic, agronomic and environmental grounds.

It is therefore vital for the many countries that position fertilizer centrally in their plans for improved agro-productivity to try to make it a fertility-supplementation measure, instead of as the main or only answer to poor soils. Where it is possible to eliminate its use altogether, that would be even better, but there are many situations where this is not realistic.

In making arguments against green-revolution technologies, the NGO Grain recently lamented the attempt to “industrialise” Africa’s agriculture. One example they gave was the effort to introduce cassava varieties more suited to large-scale than smallholder farming, painting this as an elaborate conspiracy by global agri-business to control African farming. They cited how the new varieties had generally been rejected by smallholders in favour of traditional varieties they continued to find more suitable on the basis of several criteria.

The rejection of new strains of cassava does not mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with scientific research into new varieties suited for commercial farming. African agricultural concerns have long moved beyond only being concerned about household food security to being an engine of national economic growth.

In some countries, for example, “new” varieties of hybrid maize have been enthusiastically embraced over “traditional” varieties by even smallholders. So whether a variety is accepted or rejected by farmers is far more complex than if that variety is new or traditional. When new varieties offer a mix of properties attractive to farmers they will be accepted, just as new varieties that do not will be rejected. 

Grain says, “African farmers have created a rich and dynamic agriculture which was gravely wounded by the continent's history over the last few centuries and, now, by the domineering multinationals and their allies to extract the remaining resources and knowledge.” That rich traditional agriculture which was wounded is not going to ever return in its original form.

For better and for worse, Africa has been irreversibly changed by the “grave wounding” alluded to by Grain. It is struggling with how best to adjust to new realities that have resulted from the wound. A return to a romantic past of pre-colonial innocence is clearly not one of the options. The changes wrought by the wounding are difficult, but we see innumerable examples of how Africans have accepted the idea of incorporating new and old more than some NGOs who would presume to speak on behalf of them! 

To say, as Grain does, that “If African farmers are organised, if they rediscover and value their cultures and their knowledge, this is where Africa will have its real strength for change” sounds vaguely pro-African. But this mushiness, and the implication that “rediscovering and valuing their cultures and knowledge” necessarily means being afraid of and automatically rejecting new innovations is simply another of the many negative stereotypes. That this one is being used in an ostensibly pro-African context makes it no less offensive.

It is no longer desirable to consign Africa to a romantic traditional past that can no longer meet the needs and desires of today. All across Africa, farmers and their children are flocking from the countryside to towns because the traditional farming sometimes spoken of by some NGOs can no longer sustain them. The economic, environmental and social costs of the present-day crisis may be just as severe as the calamities alarmists claim await Africa if it takes a new risk.

The challenge for Africa is to find successful ways to mix old and new, traditional and modern, imported and indigenous. The continent also ought to be realistic about the urgently needed compromises that are unavoidable. Many of the good ideas being thrown about are compromised by the rigidity with which their promoters present them.

By Chido Makunike
Makunike is an Agricultural Consultant based in Dakar, Senegal

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