Pitfalls of embracing a natural farming region approach to agriculture development
Agricultural practices in much of Africa have always been done in line with natural farming regions. While this approach is sensible, it has consistently disadvantaged dry regions. There has been a tendency to think that drought-prone areas do not have resilience pathways that can be commercialized. Most agricultural decisions continue to be influenced by rainfall patterns as drivers of investment.
Looking at what happens in African mass markets, it is possible to conclude that boundaries between dry regions and high rainfall regions may just be artificial. There are strong synergies between the two. Just as drought-prone areas are a market for food from high rainfall areas, high rainfall areas also constitute a huge market for commodities like small grains that do well in dry regions. An integrated approach to building food systems will ride on the strengths of both regions.
However, most African countries are yet to tap into the existing and potential strengths of dry regions. For instance, most mechanization investments are directed at high rainfall regions at the expense of dry regions. Instead of identifying appropriate mechanization for dry regions, governments have tried to foist crops that do well in high rainfall regions on dry regions together with associated equipment like combine harvesters and heavy duty tractors. Crops like wheat that consume a lot of water are often imposed on dry regions where small grains grow naturally but there have not been efforts to support the necessary innovation that would see small grains being produced under irrigation, possibly in winter.
Mapping of existing resources
Agricultural investments should be guided by careful mapping of existing resources like land, soil types and water sources including forests which also contribute to local food systems. Such efforts should also look at knowledge and human skills. Dry regions have been left with old people as the young generation migrate to high rainfall areas because they do not see agriculture-related opportunities in dry regions. Youth from dry regions are often found working in horticulture plantations of high rainfall regions and sugar cane farms when they should be applying their knowledge in their home areas.
Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) also have to be carefully mapped so that such knowledge does not completely disappear with the old generation. Much of the land in dry regions is lying idle as the old generation which has the knowledge on how to use the land in producing traditional crops no longer have the energy to work the land. The old generation has abundant knowledge in producing small grains, indigenous vegetables and indigenous poultry but youths are not available to receive that knowledge.
Infiltration and dilution of IKS
A disturbing trend is the infiltration and dilution of indigenous knowledge systems by modern companies scrambling for relevance. For example some livestock feed manufacturing companies now claim to produce road runner feed suitable for indigenous poultry. How authentic is that feed and why are African researchers or innovators not upgrading and commercializing indigenous poultry feed that has been produced traditionally for generations? What value is being added by local universities and tertiary institutions that are located in dry regions? How much of their curricula or content comprises local knowledge or IKS? Rather than adopting foreign syllabus, these institutions should be focusing more on contextual issues like developing local food systems for local, regional and global consumers.
Which supply chains are informed by small grains, indigenous fruits, indigenous vegetables, indigenous chickens and many other local resources that can drive growth? Serious efforts should go towards developing appropriate supply chains and markets. Many development organizations are promoting production of small grains and indigenous chickens but they are not developing markets. If a region has enough potential to produce its own food, 10% can be local consumption while the rest goes to markets.
Opportunities in value addition
Appropriate technology for small grains is lacking and that presents a challenge for commercialization. Most few quantities produced for surplus get to the market through public transport which is uneconomic for every farmer to come with his/her bucket of small grains. Better markets tend to be distant from smallholder farming areas.
Given that much of the production across Africa is seasonal, there is no control over production cycles and supply is rendered inconsistent. Preservation of indigenous fruits for consistent and organized supply to the market is also lacking. Universities should participate in promoting the utilization of wild fruits, indigenous vegetables and other crops that are abundant during rainy seasons. Seed for propagation of indigenous crops and wild fruits is another critical pursuit. Small grains have remained labour-intensive for generations, making the crops unattractive to the youth. Why do we not have plantations for indigenous fruits which do not need too much attention and can give young people time to multi-task? Building on existing IKS is the best way of developing dry regions rather than bringing foreign innovations and knowledge which cannot tap into these areas’ competitive advantages.
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