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Guardian Letter May 6 2008

Technological fixes are not enough to solve Africa's crop problems

  • Tuesday May 6 2008
  • As one who has spent the past 35 years in rural development in Africa, I agree with much of what Madeleine Bunting wrote (At last Africa is starting to see a green revolution. Let's hope it's not too late, April 21). However, her suggestion that Africa needs a green revolution along the lines of Asia, with the implied emphasis on technological solutions, is too simplistic. We need a change in the approach to rural development.

    Certainly, a lot of aid was spent on agriculture in the 70s and early 80s. This failed, not so much - as Bunting claims - because of "the self-interest on the part of western donors and advisers", but because the large-scale rural development projects, funded by the EU and others, did not consult local peasant farmers. I know, because I was involved in one of these projects. They were imposed from the top down. Often the technologies promoted were inappropriate - such as reliance on fertiliser which was frequently unavailable - and not suited to local conditions.

    "The underinvestment and neglect of African farming go back to colonial times," Bunting says. But the current failure in food production goes much deeper than this. All over Africa, peasant farmers are mono-cropping their staple food simply to have enough food to feed their families. This practice is unsustainable as it impoverishes the soil, leading to declining yield and lower production. Few farmers practise crop rotation or diversify their cropping. They plant seed grown for several generations because they cannot get improved seed. Women, often the more dynamic half of the family, are excluded from agriculture since they cannot own land, but are expected to provide labour in addition to the other myriad tasks they perform.

    On top of this, some countries like Malawi, which Bunting mentioned, have been encouraged to become dependent on food aid and handouts. The dependency culture was started by the missionaries in the 19th century and is continued today by a plethora of aid agencies.

    It does not have to be like this. Over the past 15 years I have seen sizeable areas in Ethiopia, Uganda and Malawi transformed from being dependent on food aid to producing more than enough food. The key is a concerted investment of three to five years that directly involves the peasant farmers. They identify their food production problems and suggest possible solutions. As a result they have a sense of ownership in initiatives to improve production.

    Emphasis is placed on promoting sustainable practices such as crop diversification and rotation, using nitrogen-fixing crops (such as beans, which are high in protein) to improve the soil. The farmers are also encouraged to create simple organisations, such as farmers' groups, that allow them to continue activities by themselves.

    Yes, as Bunting says, there is a "desperate urgency for major investment in sub-Saharan agriculture". But technological fixes are not enough: solutions should come primarily from within Africa itself. The above initiatives have been conceived and are being led by Ethiopians, Ugandans and Malawians, not by well-meaning, misguided outsiders.

    Chris Wardle has been a team leader of evaluations of community area based rural development projects in Ethiopia, Malawi and Uganda


























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