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Back agriculture to get the most out of aid to Africa
  • Back agriculture to get the most out of aid to Africa

Copyright: Thomas Lumpkin/CIMMYT

Speed read

  • Escaping poverty begins with having enough food and income

  • An online tool allows policymakers to identify promising farming technologies

  • It shows that drought-tolerant crops could dramatically boost yields in Sub-Saharan Africa

An online tool shows which technologies will do the most to help farmers improve yields, says Gordon Conway.

European countries devote small percentages of their national income to international aid, but these add up to colossal amounts — in the UK, for example, 0.7 per cent amounts to £11 billion a year.

How can governments ensure they are getting the most bang for their buck and actually contribute to sustainable solutions for the world’s poor?

Escaping the poverty trap begins with having enough food on your table and enough money in your pocket. For more than 500 million smallholder farmers all over the world, this means producing enough on two hectares (or less) of land to eat, and also having surplus to sell.

According to the World Bank, investment in agriculture is about twice as effective for poverty reduction as investment in any other sector. [1] This is why, if Western donors want to make the most impact on the ground, they must put their money into agricultural innovations.

An online tool developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and launched earlier this year, allows policymakers to identify which technologies or practices (out of 10 that were modelled) will do most to improve yields in their region, taking predicted climate change conditions into account. [2] The results for sub-Saharan Africa were striking. For instance, the joint adoption of no-till agriculture and drought-tolerant crops could as much as triple yields by 2050.

No-till agriculture

No-till agriculture involves minimal soil disturbance to ensure water and nutrients are retained. According to the IFPRI tool, by 2050 the practice could increase maize yields in Sub-Saharan Africa by 31 per cent from current levels (the baseline measure used in the model). Across the three crops studied (maize, rice and wheat), adoption of no-till practices would mean 10.2 per cent fewer people in Africa being at risk of hunger.

Better control of weeds, disease and insects through crop protection would reduce the number of people at risk of hunger by a further 7.9 per cent. Together with no-till agriculture, such practices would remove nearly 100 million people in Africa from hunger risk.

For individual countries, the results can be even more impressive. In Malawi, for example, by 2050 no-till agriculture could boost wheat yields by 183 per cent.

Persistent drought, particularly in the Horn of Africa, has caused some of the most devastating famines and recurring food crises. Public and private research has identified a suite of genes that enable a plant to tolerate drought, and these are being developed through conventional and modern breeding.

According to IFPRI’s tool, Namibia and Niger would gain most if they encouraged farmers to plant drought-tolerant wheat: increasing yields by 32 and 36 per cent respectively by 2050 for rain-fed wheat, taking climate change into account.

The public-private partnership between CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center), Monsanto and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation — in collaboration with several other donors and research institutions — has used conventional breeding to develop 15 new hybrid varieties of water-efficient maize for Africa. These will soon be marketed royalty-free to African smallholder farmers, with the promise that they will increase yields by 20-35 per cent during moderate droughts compared with conventional varieties.

Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture looks to optimise farm outcomes by using inputs in a more careful, measured way.

For instance, for a farmer, keeping costs down means using expensive inputs — such as fertiliser — prudently. A simple innovation, microdosing, does just that: the plastic cap from a drinks bottle is used to measure fertiliser, which is then poured into the hole in which a seed will be planted. And not only does the technique cut costs, but it also protects the environment from excess use of fertiliser.

A trial in Zimbabwe has shown a 30-50 per cent increase in grain yields for farmers who practised microdosing. In another trial, this time in West Africa, more than 300,000 farmers increased sorghum and millet yields by 30-100 per cent by adopting this innovation. [3] Combined with improved seeds, and access to finance, storage systems and markets, their incomes grew between 50 and 130 per cent.

Efficient water use is another method of ‘precision agriculture’. A Zai or “water pockets” system is a simple, low-cost method for conserving water that farmers pioneered for the sun-baked soils of northwest Burkina Faso. Using a shovel or axe, farmers break up the ground and dig small holes, which they fill with compost and plant with seeds for trees, millet or sorghum. These ‘pockets’ catch water during the rainy season and, when filled with compost, retain moisture and nutrients through the dry season.

In a study by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food in Burkina Faso, grain yield increased by 120 per cent due to this technique, equivalent to around 80,000 tonnes of extra grain a year.

According to IFPRI’s model, if precision agriculture techniques were to be widely adopted, by 2050, sub-Saharan Africa could benefit from 42 per cent increases in wheat yield. Individual countries could see even better results, with yields of rain-fed wheat in Angola rocketing by 168 per cent and in Botswana, Madagascar and South Africa by around 75 per cent by 2050.

If European donors want the funds they donate to count, these innovations must also be combined with extension services, finance and working markets — so that African farmers are better equipped and investments have the most impact.

Gordon Conway is director of the Agriculture for Impact programme and professor of international development at Imperial College London, United Kingdom. He is former president of The Rockefeller Foundation, United States, and the Royal Geographical Society in the United Kingdom. Conway can be contacted via @Ag4Impact


[1] Agriculture and poverty reduction (The World Bank, 2008)
[2] AgriTech Toolbox (IFPRI, accessed 8 October 2014)
[3] Sustainable intensification: A new paradigm for African agriculture (The Montpellier Panel, 2013)
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