Africa Needs More Nature-friendly Food Systems

By Vine Mutyasira

Dr. Vine Mutyasira is Program Officer for Policy Quantitative Modelling and Data Analytics at AGRA.

Faced with rising demand for food by its growing population that is expected to cross the two-billion mark by 2050, amidst intensifying effects of climate change, Africa has no choice but to focus more on nature-friendly production.

This is the only sustainable way out for a continent that is already under intense pressure as it struggles to feed itself. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Africa bears the heaviest malnutrition burden with an undernourishment prevalence rate of over 20%, compared to the global average of 9.9%. 

With the food and nutrition insecurity projected to further worsen, production has to be significantly stepped up, urgently. Unfortunately, with the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather conditions due to biting effects of climate change, this boost in production can no longer be oblivious of its impact on the environment that also afflicts food systems. Food systems are estimated to contribute about a third of greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, with Africa particularly vulnerable.  

Continuing with the traditional approaches, such as expanding cropland as a means of boosting production is no longer sustainable and risks serious consequences. Between 2003 and 2019, 75% of sub-Saharan Africa’s crop production growth came from the expansion of cropland, with only 25% coming from crop yield improvements. Such unsustainable patterns of production intensification have also compounded fragilities in Africa’s food systems.

On the other hand, the weighted average price of fertilizer has doubled between June 2021 and April 2022, putting a strain on farmers across the continent. The average application rate of mineral fertilizer in sub-Saharan Africa is 14 kilogrammes per hectare, which is at least 10 times lower than corresponding figures in South Asia, EU, South America, and East Asia. Limited availability and high prices of fertilizers has dampened prospects of the continent taking this route towards increasing productivity.

This leaves nature-positive production, and regenerative agriculture in particular, as a plausible option for the continent. It presents an opportunity to intensify production to address the current food crisis by sustainably boosting outputs to cater for growing consumption needs. 

According to studies by the Africa Regenerative Agriculture Study Group, 2040 scenarios show that a 13% increase in yields from a regenerative agriculture scenario would translate into 62 million dry matter tonnes of additional crop production per year. This is in addition to potentially supporting 5 million full-time jobs by 2040, with over USD 70 billion of gross value being added per year.

Although many initiatives have been developed to promote nature-positive agriculture systems in Africa, smallholders have been slow to adopt the technological practices. Studies show that the certified land under organic agriculture in Africa is around 2.1 million hectares, which represents only 0.2% of the continent’s total agricultural area.

AGRA’s regenerative agriculture projects in Kakamega, Nandi and Vihiga counties of Kenya have seen about 4,451 hectares being put under sustainable land management practices, including conservation agriculture, agroforestry, soil and water conservation and integrated soil fertility management. However, despite the range of benefits from transitioning to regenerative and nature positive production bring clear, intrinsic barriers to the adoption of the practices by smallholder farmers still exist. This call for more efforts to bring more land under sustainable farming practices.

To effectively shift food systems to become more nature-positive, it depends largely on a conducive policy environment to deliver necessary incentives and de-risk the transition. This calls for a few key policy actions.

First, given that most regenerative practices involve permanent and long-term investments, it will be crucial to institute appropriate property rights and land tenure arrangements. This will not only provide the needed security to encourage investments, but also facilitate de-risking of the transition.

Secondly, we need to drive policy and regulatory reforms that level the playing field and incentivize regenerative agriculture. Current agricultural policies tend to disproportionately serve industrial agriculture over regenerative agriculture. Hence, we need to get the policy and institutional architecture right to support the needed transition.  

The third imperative is focus on providing support for farmers during their beginning or transitioning years of regenerative farming. We need to invest more in decentralized and diverse food systems infrastructure, to create additional market and operational capacity for farmers pursuing regenerative farming. The technical resources offered through extension and public research institutions need to be improved to meet specific needs of farmers. National extension systems will also need to be appropriately resourced and equipped to provide tailored and specialist services to smallholder farmers to ease adoption hurdles.

Finally, we need to shape demand for food towards more sustainable diets. For instance, there should be mechanisms to support market development, raise consumer awareness and promote the consumption of products produced under regenerative farming systems.

This shift is necessary, since boosting productivity without a sustainability lens will continue to aggravate food systems challenges.

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