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Smallholder African Farmers Embrace Innovative Planting

  • Kim Lewis

A new report addressing Africa’s food and nutrition crisis offers smallholder farmers in Africa, a unique and simple way of producing more food sustainably while also preserving the environment.

The report entitled, Sustainable Intensification: A Time to Rethink Africa is based on research conducted by the Montpellier Panel, an international group of agricultural experts based in London. The report provided examples of successful projects, where the group along with local farmers, used innovative thinking to produce more food for a longer period of time, and at a lower cost to them.

Gordon Conway, professor of International Development at Imperial College in London and lead Montpellier panel member, explained how “sustainable intensification” works and why it is vital to all types of agricultural systems, including smallholder farmers in Africa.

“It basically arises because we need to produce more food, more incomes for poor farmers, and we need to produce more nutritious crops. And so we have to intensify food production because we have a limited amount of food and a limited amount of water available,” explained Conway, who cautioned it has to be done in a sustainable fashion.

“So we have to do it in a way that uses moderate amounts of pesticide or fertilizer. We have to do it in such a way that is resilient to climate change. We have to do it in such a way that it reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, and we have to do it in a way that improves environmental resources and natural capital,” noted Conway.

He provided some success stories in Africa using sustainable intensification methods. One example is in West Africa, particularly Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso where farmers are successfully using a method called micro-dosing.

“And what you do here, is you put the fertilizer in the cap of a soda bottle, it could be a Coca Cola or Pepsi Cola, or whatever bottle. And you put that in the hole before you plant the seed of the maize or other crop. That means you get the exactly the right amount of fertilizer to the plant and the plant grows very well and you get a high yield,” explained Conway. He said this process also reduces the susceptibility to drought.

“So instead of spending a lot of money on a lot of fertilizer, and spreading it all over the land, you just buy precisely the amount of fertilizer you need for each plant before you put it in the hole,” explained Conway. He said microdosing is catching on fast in West Africa as a way of planting maize.

Observations show that smallholder farmers are responding well to this method of planting crops. The key as pointed out by Conway is that the farmers need to get a good return on their investment, and the investment must not be expensive and complicated.