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Opinion: Africa’s Agricultural Potential Begins on the Ground

Howard G. Buffett is a farmer and Chairman and CEO of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. He has farmed for over 35 years, and the Foundation has invested over $150 million in research to improve agriculture and an additional $350 million in agriculture-related programs globally.

LONDON, Oct 16 2015 (IPS) - My friend Kofi Boa is a Ghanaian agronomist who is probably the biggest advocate for conservation farming in Africa. For decades, Kofi has taught farmers how to increase their yields using no-till, cover crops and other techniques.

He once showed me a demonstration plot I’ve never forgotten: it was a sloped field planted with corn, divided into three equal areas. On the first section, he used traditional plowing and at the bottom were five barrels full of soil – the run-off from a single rainy season. The second plot he strip-tilled, and there was one barrel of soil that had washed down. On the third section he never tilled the soil at all. That field had a strong harvest – its soil run-off barrel was almost empty.

Kofi’s demonstration is one that every farmer and everyone working in agricultural development needs to see, understand and appreciate. I have heard philanthropists and others say things like “Africa can feed the world,” but it’s vital that we first focus on Africa feeding itself. Growing sufficient food for Africa’s fast-rising population demands preserving and enriching its fragile soils.

The continent is home to dramatically diverse landscapes from the vast Tanzanian Serengeti savannahs; to the hilly, volcanic, jungle landscape of the Democratic Republic of Congo; to the Afromontagne and coastal forests that span the entire continent. But what’s often overlooked is that less than 10 percent of Africa has what are considered high-quality soils for agriculture.

When you see photographs of dense jungle or animal migrations, it can be hard to imagine that Africa has such poor soils. The fact is that during early periods of soil formation while glaciers deposited valuable minerals and rich sediments in regions such as the American Midwest, the Ukraine, and Argentina, Africa was shortchanged. It is home to some of the oldest and most weathered stretches of land anywhere. While there are some regions with good soils in lower West Africa, and within several countries including Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique, most of Africa’s 54 countries did not receive equivalent soil resources.

And unfortunately, the picture for soil never improved: the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 65 percent of agricultural land throughout Africa has been degraded by human activity, including farming and overgrazing. Recently the Montpellier Panel, a prominent group of agriculture, ecology and trade experts from Africa and Europe, estimated that these degraded soils are too damaged to sustain viable food production.

There is no quick fix. Reversing this picture means overcoming physical, cultural, and political impediments. The history of Africa’s soils and land use also complicates the picture. For example, while visiting Eastern Congo last month, I stood on a high ridge overlooking the Virunga National Park. The air was hazy and the landscape was dotted with several dozen or more small, smoky fires that signal the practice of “slash and burn” agriculture, which is widespread in Africa. For centuries people have used fire to convert jungle and forests to farmland and to burn crop residues. Unfortunately, this destroys important ecosystems, offering only a few seasons of fertility before farmers must keep slashing into surrounding forests to find land with enough nutrients to support a crop.

Understanding these complex dynamics is essential to making a real, practical difference. Many one-size-fits-all plans are designed by academics, bureaucrats and others with little or no input from farmers themselves. Above all, we must beware of solutions that involve simply transplanting Western farming techniques. Generally speaking, approaches that reduce diversity and rely heavily on synthetic fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and expensive equipment are not practical for millions of Africa’s smallholder farmers, at least not today.

Western farming is also focused on a small number of staple crops such as corn and soybeans. Pushing African farmers toward mono-cropping systems can actually increase hunger. More research aimed at improving African seed types is important, but many crops Africans rely on are not on the list of the 20 crops with historical importance in the world. Therefore they are largely ignored by researchers and seed companies.

As Kofi proves every day, however, there are immediate tools available to help solve Africa’s challenges. At our foundation, we look at Africa’s potential for agriculture through a different lens than some in development. We are focused on what we call a “Brown Revolution.” That means a heavy emphasis on protecting and remediating soils. Regardless of terrain, crops, wildlife, culture, or history, every farmer in the world needs productive soil to grow food. The critical element is to appreciate the unique conditions on the ground in each region. In the Eastern Congo I reviewed soil maps of a relatively small region where the soil quality ranged from nearly “dead”—lacking organic matter and key nutrients—to very rich. Each of those different soil profiles requires a different recipe of ideal crop rotations and farming techniques to achieve maximum production from the land.

This work demands good information about where we are today and the communication of practical ideas for improvement. Our foundation has produced an in-depth analysis that we hope achieves both goals, called Africa’s Potential for Agriculture, now available for download at www.brownrevolution.org. We shared this publication at the 2015 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue where Kofi and I joined Imperial College’s Sir Gordon Conway and Argentinian agronomist Alejandro Lopez to talk about the importance of soil health and the role of conservation agriculture. Food security is one of the most fundamental challenges the world faces and these are critical conversations.

When I travel to Africa I always visit with smallholder farmers who, despite backbreaking work every day, frequently experience hunger. There is something terribly ironic about farmers who are hungry. In many parts of the world, farmers farm to survive, not for profit. We must realize these different dynamics and risk profiles when proposing solutions that are realistic and applicable in situations that are quite different from our own.

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