No-till agriculture and drought-resistant crops critical to Africa’s prosperity

No-till agriculture and drought-resistant crops critical to Africa’s prosperity

Poverty can never be eradicated until everyone has enough food to eat and a steady income. The World Bank argues that investment in agriculture is about twice as effective in the fight against poverty as investment in any other sector.

Africa is the poorest continent in the world, yet it is one of the richest in terms of its natural resources. Its vast arable lands, excellent fishing grounds, and abundant fresh water supply (in certain regions at least) offer vast potential. Not only is Africa capable of feeding all of its own, it has been recognised as a potential world bread basket.

Given all these resources the fact that various regions such as the Horn of Africa repeatedly suffer famines is deplorable. To date ill-suited crops, inefficient farming practices, lack of finances and expertise, war and political strife, and climate change are among the primary inhibitors of growth in Africa’s agricultural sector. An improved agricultural sector is absolutely vital to the continent’s socioeconomic development.

The supremacy of no-till agriculture in Africa

Earlier this year The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched an online tool that helps national policymakers identify which farming practices and technologies are most suited to their region, taking into consideration expected climate changes. One of the key findings for Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is the utility of no-till agriculture.

No-till agriculture helps nutrients and water to stay in the ground, as they are little agitated. The IFPRI tool suggests that maize yields in SSA could grow by 31% between now and 2050 if no-till agriculture is practiced. Moreover, if no-till practices were used in the cultivation of wheat, rice and maize, the number of Africans at risk of hunger would decrease by 10.2%.

Country estimates are perhaps even more exciting, being that much more tangible. The IFPRI tool tells us that in Malawi, for example, wheat output could be improved by a staggering 183% if no-till methods were employed from now until 2050.

Furthermore, if SSA’s farmers were to add to no-till agriculture better crop protection practices (which help to control insects, weeds and disease) the number of Africans at risk of hunger would be diminished by 100 million.

The urgent need for drought-resistant crops

Africa has large swathes of drought-prone land, and the vulnerability of the communities living in these regions to famine and economic hardship needs to be addressed if Africa is to have a chance at prospering. A key change required to improve farming practices in such regions is the introduction of drought-resistant crops.

In Namibia and the Niger, for example, the use of drought-resistant wheat varieties could potentially increase yields by 32 and 36% respectively by 2050. As many as 15 new water-efficient maize varieties have been developed by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in conjunction with Monsanto and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, among others, and these will soon be rolled out, royalty free, to smallholder farmers in the appropriate regions. This is an exciting development, promising increased yields of 20 to 35% during common droughts.

No-till agriculture and drought-resistant crops are not the only methods being endorsed for Africa; another key change that is needed is precision farming, which looks to more careful measurements and management of resources such as water and fertiliser to increase yields. At the end of the day it will be a combination of these better farming practices that will yield the best results. For instance, IFPRI suggests that the combination of drought-resistant crops and no-till agriculture has the potential to triple agricultural output in SSA by 2050!

Injecting aid where it will do the most good

Last year international donor aid reached about $160 billion, the bulk of which came from the 28 members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), the rest from the European Commission and seven non-DAC countries.

Developed nations engaging in official development assistance (ODA) commit to annually giving a certain percentage of their gross national incomes to international aid. European nations, and Scandinavia in particular, give the highest proportions; at the top of the list is Norway, which donates 1.07%, then Sweden (1.02%), Luxembourg (1.00%), and Denmark (0.85%). Next on the list is the UK (0.72%), though its sum outstrips those of the other countries mentioned above because of its higher income – last year it was able to donate $17.88 billion (versus Norway’s $5.58 billion), making it the second biggest donor nation. The greatest donor is the USA, with $31.55 billion going to international aid in 2013.

Developed nations who want to see the biggest and most sustainable positive change occur through their donations to Africa would do well to align their giving with the above-detailed research and principles. The payoff of investing in agriculture – the right sort of agriculture – could be phenomenal, helping to not only reduce hunger and poverty in Africa, but also develop African economies and ensure greater global food security.

“Our continent has enormous potential, not only to feed itself and eliminate hunger and food insecurity, but also to be a major player in global food markets. This potential lies in its land, water and oceans, in its men and women, in its knowledge and huge markets,” says NEPAD in its Agriculture in Africa: Transformation and outlook report. Donor nations are accordingly encouraged to sow their money into innovations in African agriculture in order to see the greatest and most sustainable returns.

David Okwara

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