Organic Farming in Africa

Fernando Naves Sousa
Sunday, 16th March 2014

Fernando Naves Sousa visits Burkina Faso to meet several farmers experimenting with organic methods to improve soil conditions, yields and combat pests.

Many experts agree that one of Africa’s key challenges in the near future will be to increase food production in an environmentally and socially sustainable way. Yet, some say very little is being done to improve the performance of organic farming and other sustainable agricultural methods in the continent. Farmer-lead research may help pave the way towards a more sustainable and fair food production system in Africa.

The Somda family have been living on the same land for generations in southern Burkina Faso, a region recognized as the country’s farming powerhouse. But the land’s performance is far from its golden days. “In our grandparent’s time, soil was very fertile. Now, we must add something to it, or it won’t deliver,” says Maxime Somda, the head of the family, who now finds it harder than his father to grow corn and cotton. This young farmer, 34 years old, has also invested in a small shop in his home village where neighbours come to get soap, tea, sugar or batteries for their radios. But trade is far from being his focus. “It’s just an extra, we still rely on land and hand work to get food.”

The surrounding dense savanna is showing off a thousand shades of green, fed by the rainy season, which is now coming to an end. Women and children colourfully dot the fields of corn, sorghum and millet, harvesting the already mature cereals, while men and women leave the fields with baskets full of cereals on their heads. They will be communally threshed at night.

From these cereals, especially corn, the women will cook to make a kind of pudding eaten with okra or peanut sauce, the most common food found in rural areas. From sorghum, a local beer is made, dolo, which brings farmers together each day, just before sunset.

But it’s the cotton, the ‘white gold’ of the country, that presents the main obstacles, since it is a demanding crop in terms of fertility and is vulnerable to pests. For this family and others in the region, it is also the main source of income.

The difficulties faced by Maxime are perhaps greater than those of his neighbours, who practice conventional farming and use industrial fertilizers. “But fertilizers are simply a short term solution, they won’t keep fertility in the long term,” he explains. Maxime started farming organically in order to protect the health of his two wives and six children, as well as to restore land fertility.

Maxime is now part of a group of West African farmers, coordinated by the Syprobio project (see below), who believe organic farming is not something of the past, but of the future. Like his 99 project fellows, he’s determined to create innovations to help farmers overcome their difficulties, and the decline in soil fertility is one of the most serious. Local farmers and several experts agree this is perhaps the biggest challenge to the future of farming in Africa, and particularly in the context of organic farming, where the use of mineral fertilizers is not permitted.

“If it works, they will follow”

In his cotton field, Maxime experiments with different ways of applying compost, a resource that is almost always in short supply, leading him to try to understand which compost application methods could optimise plant growth. He split his field into partitions, in one, spreading compost in a uniform way, in another, gathering it in little pockets together with the cotton seedlings, and in another, applying it in a row, along the furrows where the cotton plants were sown. “So far it seems to work better in a row, but we must wait until the end of the season.” Several neighbouring farmers have already visited his field, curious about the experiment’s development. “If it works, they will follow.”

Seydou, living in the south of the country, focuses on a different problem: Pests. He decided to take part in the project because he wants to find new ways of improving his work as well as cotton and cereal yields, without resorting to industrial inputs.

In front of his house, where he lives with his wife and four children, one sees a group of other round mud houses with thatched roofs. In the open area between the houses, women pound corn and lay straw mats where corn flower, okra, peppers and other foodstuffs are laid out to dry in the sun. Next to the food rests a bundle of a locally well known plant, Cassia nigricans, long used as an insect repellent. The farmer is now experimenting with a brew made of this plant and hot peppers, to prevent caterpillars and other insects from damaging his crops. He also had the idea of adding shea butter oil, made by the women from the nut of the locally abundant shea tree. His theory is that it will help the mix stick to the plants, improving its performance, which can be useful during the rainy season. “The results are exciting, and not so different from those of conventional pesticides”, he says. Seydou and most local farmers acknowledge the danger of applying herbicides and pesticides without protection, and many have known people who got ill or even died from exposure to the toxic products without the proper precautions, or by the consumption of contaminated food or water.

Going back to the past

Sometimes innovating means going back to the past, as notes Tiemoko, another participant. As the elder farmer of his little village of mud and straw houses, he decides what to grow each season. This year he chose maize and peanuts, since organic cotton prices declined last year. He and his three younger sons go out to the fields each day to harvest peanuts, yams and some early maize.

Although an experienced farmer, he admits many of the old techniques used by the last generations of farmers have been neglected, such as mixing certain crops. He tries now some of those associations as well as others, to figure out what crops yield better grown together. This technique is seen as very relevant these days, since population growth has been putting more pressure on the land. “With the increase in the number of people, we have more mouths to feed, but the land surface doesn’t grow. If we mix beans and sorghum instead of growing them separately, we can take better advantage of the available land. Besides, the beans cover the soil between the sorghum stems, preventing weeds from taking over. They’re good companions.”

But the strong decline in soil fertility is not the only threat to Western African farming. Another common trend putting further pressure on the soil, people and even the climate, is deforestation. The country’s agricultural landscape is mainly composed of small cereal fields dotted with trees like the shea tree, the neré and several species of acacias, interspersed with patches of more or less dense savanna. But according to local farmers, the number of trees has been diminishing, mostly due to a higher wood demand for construction and cooking. The smaller number of trees promotes soil erosion, which is particularly severe in the Sahel region. Less trees also means they won’t play the role of ‘nutrient pumps’ anymore, the uphold of nutrients from lower layers of the soil, from the roots up to the leaves, which fall in the soil and rot, unleashing nutrients and enriching the top layer of the soil within up to five meters from the tree. Poula, a farmer who participates in the project says that around some of those trees, especially some acacia species which fix nitrogen, crops grow “as if we had put some fertilizers in the soil”. Besides, some of these trees provide other sources of food or income, as the shea tree, from which women produce shea butter, used locally as an edible oil or exported as a cosmetic ingredient. Some acacias produce seeds that are used in local dishes and sauces, and some have leaves which are enjoyed by domestic animals. Poula and her family are now planting trees in their fields, to restore the benefits trees provide.

Although the efforts of these pioneers may produce important results, the challenges of the local agricultural systems are still many, and probably getting worse.
Besides soil fertility decline and population growth, African farmers have also to face the differences in rain patterns due to climate change. Farmers are also exposed to the advances of biotechnology corporations, who, backed by local governments and in the absence of a local critical mass demanding more rights over food sovereignty, are already testing genetically modified varieties of beans, for example. Many believe testing pesticide-producing beans will carry a high contamination risk for the local varieties, within a very important crop for local nutrition. Furthermore, corporate seeds could potentially increase farmer dependency on external inputs, instead of breeding and saving their own, with negative implications for their food sovereignty.

Maxime, Seydou, Tiemoko and Poula are among the dedicated farmers trying to find solutions for problems faced by most farmers in the West African region. The next step – dissemination of results – will probably present a further challenge, but communication from producer to producer will probably be the most promising method.

It’s up to these farmers and others, at the forefront of agricultural innovation, to show that innovative organic technologies are not just a thing of the past, but also have great potential for the future of farming in Africa.
Syprobio (Systèmes de Production Biologiques) is a participatory action-research programme developed by FiBL (Organic Farming Research Center) in partnership with farmer associations and research institutions in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Benin, representing a total of 10,000 farmers. The project is financed by EuropeAid and has a period of five years, having started in 2011. Syprobio aims to empower local farmers in the process of investigating and developing organic farming innovations which can promote food security and sovereignty, as well as better farm income, particularly through the improvement of soil fertility, pest management and adaptation to climate change.
Fernando Naves Sousa is a consultant/researcher for FiBL, the Organic Farming Research Institute, in Switzerland.

Further resources

Permaculture ethics and practice in sub-saharan Africa

The man who stopped the desert and a review of the film: The Man Who Stopped the Desert 

Permaculture in action! Creating a permaculture island in Kenya

Farms with a Future: Creating and Growing a Sustainable Farm Future

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