Sub-Saharan Africa: Time for a Paradigm Shift to Sustainable Farming Practices

Farming in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has remained fairly conventional over the years and involves intensive use of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers to guarantee production. Such is deeply entrenched in the farming culture that it has become the default farming system without which farming is utterly impossible. We are born into it, live with it, and die in it without questioning whether there exists other alternatives.

As was the trend in the 18th and 19th century of the agrarian revolution, it is a surprise that up till the 20th century, conventional farming practices have totally refused to fade into oblivion even with the increase in technology and precision farming. With the numerous challenges to farming, farmers opt for a farming practice that will guarantee production at the least possible costs, with less regard to the health of end consumers and the environment. A big percentage of farming in SSA is still small scale and most farmers grow for subsistence. However, current trends indicate an increasing interest in agribusiness projected to be worth US$1 trillion by 2030 compared to just US$313 billion in 2010, according to a report by World Bank in 2013.

With increasing interest in agribusiness, farmers need to be aware of new models of farming that not only guarantee production, but ensure that such production is done in harmony with existing local environmental conditions that ensure long-term sustainability. Such can only be guaranteed if farmer education takes center stage in government or NGO policies and programs for agricultural production in the long run. This however comes with its own share of constraints. As the old adage goes, it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks, and it is quite impossible to change the mindset of an aged farmer who has been practicing conventional farming almost his entire life overnight. This explains the slow rates of new technology adoption by most small scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to a report adopted by CGIAR (Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers) on new technology adoption by farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, the rate is much slower and has been on a downward trend. This could be due to the fact that majority of these farmers are older and are used to a certain kind of farming practice that they find difficult, if not impossible, to change. This is no surprise since farming among communities in SSA was considered an old person’s job and was associated with the poor and vulnerable. However, with the focus shifting on agribusiness, the younger generation is encouraged to participate in farming because it is associated with higher rates of technological adoption. This generation — armed with the right technology and mindset — are the future of farming in SSA and need to be encouraged to adopt sustainable models that not only guarantees food security, but environmental concerns for the long term.

Kenya recently experienced a devastating attack by a species of fall armyworm.

There exists an urgent need therefore to have a paradigm shift from the conventional way of farming, which is more of a comfort zone, to an integrated approach that ensures that farmers are guaranteed production even in the face of fluctuating weather and climatic regimes as a result of climate change. Kenya is an interesting case study in this regard. The country recently experienced a devastating attack by a species of fall armyworm, which became almost impossible to control. Agrichemical companies, lead research institutions, and government institutions were caught unaware and without an existing solution to farmers. This pest outbreak has severely threatened food security in Kenya, which until recently had imported maize — a staple commodity in the country — from Mexico.

The question which was in everyone’s mind is whether this happened overnight since it took everybody by surprise. Up until now, intervention is still wanting and it is indeed interesting to note that certain farmers had opted for physical mechanisms, where they basically put the worm between to stones to crush it. Come to think of it, strange as it may sound in this time and age, this is one of the methods advocated for in IPM (Integrated Pest Management) as a form of physical control of pests. In fact, if every farmer had applied IPM, which basically gives you the opportunity to be ahead of the problem, the first farmers whose farms were attacked had the opportunity to control the pest in situ without further intervention if only they took the matter with the seriousness it advocates.

But since the default system is if you noticed a pest, immediate intervention would be to spray the chemical in stock, which in most cases is a broad-spectrum insecticide, and if that doesn’t work, you increase the rate and reduce the interval, and if it still doesn’t work, you ask the local Agrovet for the strongest concoction they’ve got and spray that too. The problem is likely to spur out of hand. In some cases, if the problem persists and is threatening the overall production system, then the specific farmers or groups of farmers would raise alarm with the government to intervene and such intervention would be in terms of compensation for losses and not to provide solutions to the problem.

What the Kenya farmers didn’t know was that the pest had become resistant to certain molecules. The problem could have arose from the overuse of such molecules to control certain pests, and in some way affected the natural balance thus natural control was lacking. For instance, certain bird species and certain reptiles that feed on the worm could have been killed as collateral in pursuit of controlling a certain pest, for instance the red spider mite. This has been contributed by our farming systems that do not encourage the growth and existence of natural enemies of pests since the environment created becomes unbearable for them or simply put, they do not exist because in some way we might have killed them knowingly or unknowingly.

This example points toward the mucky waters of future agribusiness challenges, which will become impossible even with the dawn of new technologies to decipher early enough so as to apply appropriate control. This would threaten livelihoods especially in the sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of entire economies are agro-based. The millennials are thus encouraged to adopt new models of farming that preserve the integrity of the environment and local support systems. I will discuss these models in detail, including sustainable approaches toward solving key challenges anticipated in such scenarios, in my subsequent articles.


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