Commentary [Volume 7 No. 2 (2007)]

Prof. Obed Lungu


Obed Lungu

Associate Professor of Soil Science (Soil Chemistry and Fertility). Address:- Post Net Box 427, Private Bag E891 Lusaka, Zambia.

The New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) has identified agriculture as a key development priority and a way to decrease the continent’s dependence on food imports and make a dent on poverty.

African Union ministers of Agriculture who convened in Abuja, Nigeria 12 June, 2006 for the African Fertilizer Summit declared that Africa needs a Green Revolution to take the continent out of the poverty trap by achieving food security and other Millenium Development Goals (DGs). A minimum annual growth of 6 % in the sector was adopted. This will be achieved through the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme of NEPAD (CAADP).

Africa needs a continental medium through which to document, share and exchange information on agricultural research, and best practices on agricultural production, processing and markets in order to stimulate agricultural development. The African Journal of Food, Agriculture, Nutrition and Development (AJFAND) is well placed to play that important role. The Journal should, therefore, endeavour to capture and document as many of the innovative best-bet technologies on the Continent for the benefit of all the agricultural researchers, extension workers and farmers as end users.

Some case studies in improved land management, cropping and livestock systems that are being examined offer great hope and can easily be copied. Much of this good research work in Africa has gone unreported and is not systematically documented to enable it to be retrieved for stimulating agricultural development. A few of these works have been reported in international journals outside the Continent, but these cannot be easily accessed by many researchers and agricultural practitioners. There is also the preference of African scholars to publish in foreign journals because of the consistency and regularity of publication. These journals are sustainable because of the value that is placed on them by the various public and private stakeholders in those countries.

In order to increase visibility of African agricultural research and achieve significant gains in agricultural development, there are a couple of challenges that must be surmounted. Major among these challenges that are particularly weak in the African setting are the following:

1. Low endogenous scientific and institutional capacity
Public sector support to basic and applied research has dwindled in real terms. The African leaders’ pledge under NEPAD to commit 10 % of national budgets to agriculture is already behind schedule as many countries have not met the target. Research intensity in terms of topics researched, depth of investigation and practicality of the research results has also decreased. Quality has been compromised. The little research output that is reported is more descriptive than analytical and result-oriented to be of much practical use in adding value to the recurrent food shortages and widespread poverty of the people. The paucity of research publications reflects the low premium placed on research in Africa.

This gap in national research funding has filled by the corporate sector and the focus is on corporate-driven research that does not necessarily address the continent’s pressing problems. Many donors and development partners have lamented the lack of impact despite large investments in the sector. The phorbia against biotechnology and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in particular stems in part from the lack of assurance from not having national programmes that allow independent verification of the science.

These weaknesses are being addressed at various levels. One African initiative through the Forum for African Agriculture (FARA) and the African Network for Agriculture, Agroforestry and Natural Resources Education (ANAFE) is the programme on Building Africa’s Scientific and Institutional Capacity in Agriculture and Natural Resources Education (BASIC). The Programme seeks to engage African universities in restoring capacity of these institutions in delivery of quality agricultural education at undergraduate level.

There are a number of promising local initiatives addressing other issues such as sustainability of research funding. In Zambia, one response to dwindling funding of research was to set up an autonomous, self-financing public-private sector research organization, the Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust (GART). In this GART model, an independent board of trustees through a technical management team utilizes the government’s input of land and facilities to generate own income that is ploughed back into the trust. GART engages in commercial production, contract research with agricultural companies and undertakes consultancy work in research and development. This arrangement has seen GART generate nearly 70 % of its budget with government support declining from 25 % in 1996 to less than 3 % in 2006.

GART has not neglected public good research in this approach. On the contrary these programmes have benefited from the organization’s innovative fund-raising initiatives. Conservation Agriculture and smallholder dairy have become GART’s flagship programmes that have produced the institution’s brand technologies with outreach to nearly all of the 850,000 smallholders in Zambia.

2. Low rates of technology adoption
In order to create a greater likelihood of adoption of technology, there is need to appropriately target any action. Both the target group and socio-economic circumstances of farmers need to be carefully identified and taken into account.

I am not convinced that targeting all farmers for development in agriculture in any particular country will achieve the desired result of commercializing agriculture. Many of the so-called farmers are merely subsisting on the land and they have no ambition to stay on the land for the sole purpose of producing crops for the market to earn an income. In Zambia many such “farmers” have been targeted for government subsidized fertilizer, but they have sold it to realize quick cash, or exchanged it for something else instead of applying it to their fields. A more realistic approach to ensuring food security and reducing poverty is to target and support a few promising (vulnerable but viable) farmers. Such master farmers could be supported with training, linkage to credit and markets as a nucleus for agricultural development. In Zambia there are approximately 800,000 smallholder farmers, but only 350,000 farm for business and about 300,000 of these grow cotton. This is already an appropriate target group to work with instead of the large number of subsistence farmers.

Regarding socio-economic circumstances of the farmers, there is nowhere better to start than with what people already know and to use what they already posses, or have easy access to. In Africa, land and small stock (poultry, goats and sheep) are equitable assets that should be targeted, and the focus should be on making these assets more productive.

The land has been degraded through unproductive and unsustainable practices such as monocropping and inadequate fertilization, leading to low productivity. For instance, crop yields are at least 30 % lower than the optimal that can be obtained with adequate fertilization. The challenge is to bridge the gap between potential and current crop yields of improved varieties. In Sub- Saharan Africa, total nutrient application averages 8 kg/ha compared to over 100 kg/ha in Asia.

The approach to addressing declining soil fertility is not application of inorganic, or organic fertilizer alone, but both. High crop yields cannot be sustained without adequate fertilization, and neither organic, nor inorganic fertilizer alone can sustain them. Organic fertilizer is particularly useful to maintain high soil organic matter levels which are essential to maintaining soil fertility (aggregate soil, providing porosity for water storage, binding sites for nutrient element retention and substrate for microbial life important for carrying out important transformation processes in soil.

Green manure comprising legume improved fallows and cover crops that regenerate soil fertility are not in themselves a panacea to improved soil fertility. The processes of Biological Nitrogen Fixation and nutrient recycling need to be stimulated and optimised through improving soil conditions. This may entail liming the soil, P application and crop inoculation (most legumes will not freely nodulate in soil ).

Africa’s food security crops such as cassava, sorghum, millets and legume pulses and indigenous vegetable crops have been long neglected by research that has concentrated on maize, wheat and other exotic crops. The Green Revolution that saved many lives from starvation in South East Asia may have bypassed Africa for the simple reason that it was not appropriately targeted. In Asia, rice-based systems with which farmers were familiar were made more productive by the appropriate intervention of improved high-yielding varieties and use of inorganic fertilizer and crop protection—a complete package of assistance to farmers. Markets for the crop were also readily available locally as rice is the major staple food.

Technology-incubation, or validation on-farm can stimulate adoption. Most promising technologies have remained on-shelf because of lack of validation to demonstrate economic viability at industrial /commercial scale. Validation of technology on-farm provides this shopping window for demonstrating practicality of the technology.

3. Lack of security of land tenure
In much of Africa lack of security of land tenure is retarding development. Long term investment on such land is impossible, and it has contributed to land degradation because some of the land rehabilitation measures yield benefits in the long term. In Zambia customary land comprises 95 % of the land area, and implementation of land reforms to open up this land for private lease for development has been slow. There can never be a blanket prescription for land tenure that will be acceptable by all countries. This is one area, therefore where exchange of experiences can provide valuable lessons.

4. Weak markets
Functional markets are absolutely essential in stimulating agricultural development in any country. There is an urgent need to create a demand pull for agricultural products. In countries with large populations such as India, the local demand pull is obvious. For countries with small populations like Zambia, there is need to explore export food markets. That alone requires a different marketing strategy to meet the stringent quality standards—i.e. need to address issues of value chains. Regional and global markets require more government intervention than local ones.

Availability of and access to credit and viable markets are the kingpins to development and product promotion. A Nigerian example of a positive policy requiring blending of cassava meal with wheat flour has resulted in increased volumes of cassava production in that country. At Kafuku Farm Institute in Zambia a small feed processing plant has created a demand pull for sweet potatoes, and local farmers are now selling one ton per day from almost nothing before the market was established. In this later case, no extra extension effort was injected into the area, but farmers are demanding technologies of improved varieties and best agronomic practices to increase production.

Tackling food security and poverty in Africa requires a determined effort to maintain momentum in research, optimising promising technologies and validating all promising ones on-farm to provide visibility and demonstrate practicability. Long term research is an on-going process that should be adequately funded in order to keep abreast with developments in science and social dynamics which science must endeavour to satisfy. Endogenous knowledge and innovation should be nurtured rather than totally abandoned for some discarded and inappropriate foreign technologies. Finally, there must be active exchange of experiences and ideas which can be facilitated by proper documentation of data and information.