Sir Gordon Conway: 11 Innovations for African Smallholder Agriculture

GordonConway

Our guest author, Sir Gordon Conway from Agriculture for Impact, discusses his new report, which calls for more multidisciplinary, collaborative research at a range of scales for African agriculture. The report is being launched today at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa.

In my latest report, “Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa”, my co-authors and I call for a new wave of ingenuity, creativity and innovation to address the interlinked challenges which the African agricultural sector faces.

On one side, the population is expected to double by 2050, while over 200 million Africans already go hungry and average yields remain the world’s lowest.  On the other side, poor market access, soil degradation and the impacts of climate change (among others) add extra pressure to farmers’ productivity and livelihoods.

In short, we must help African smallholder farmers produce more with less impact on the environment while also improving agriculture’s sustainability.

Multiple benefits

Finding innovations which deliver on these multiple benefits is possible, and here are 11 such innovations showing promise for African smallholder farmers:

  1. StrigAway Imazapyr Resistant (IR) maize: Yields are 38-82% higher than traditional maize varieties, while growth of the Striga weed is effectively controlled and labour requirements reduced.
  2.  Conservation agriculture: A series of 286 interventions in 57 developing countries saw an average increase in crop yield of 79% along with better and more productive soil structure.  An average total of 0.35 tons of carbon (per hectare per year) can potentially be sequestered and water use efficiency gains are seen in rainfed areas.
  3.  Microdosing: Field trials in Zimbabwe showed a 30-50% increase in grain yields.  In West Africa, similar trials increased millet and sorghum yields by 44-120%. Precise and targeted use of fertiliser increased nutrient use efficiency and aids in drought tolerance.
  4.  Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes: The Tainung variety in Kenya yields three times more than traditional varieties, is drought tolerant and quicker to mature.  A small portion (125g) provides children with over twice the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A.  In field trials in Uganda and Mozambique, vitamin A intake by women and children doubled.
  5.  Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA): The aim is to increase yields by 20-35% under moderate drought compared to conventional varieties and to increase yields 12-24% in high drought conditions while building in resistance to pests such as stem borers.
  6.  Kenya Maize Development Programme: From 2002-2010 maize yields quadrupled from 720kg to 2880kg per 0.4 hectares, and annual household incomes increased by $533 or $1.46 per day. The programme provided farmers with practical, on-farm training on improved varieties of seed and fertilizer, conservation tillage and other sustainable natural resources management practices.
  7. Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage: Yields are unaffected, yet post-harvest losses are significantly reduced. Harvests can be stored up to a year, and farmers can sell their cowpeas when prices are up to four times higher.
  8.  Zaï systems: In Burkina Faso, grain yield increased by 120%, equivalent to around 80,000 tons of extra grain per year, with the added benefit of improving infiltration in the soil, limiting water run-off, enhancing drought tolerance and protecting seeds and soil from erosion.
  9.  Farmer Field Schools: In Kenya, crop production increased 80% as a result of participation in these schools, and participants increased their incomes by 61%. In Tanzania, agricultural incomes of participants increased by over 100%.  These schools can be beneficial to typically marginalised groups, and better knowledge also contributes to sustainable agricultural practices generally.
  10. Ethiopia Commodity Exchange: Since starting in 2008 the value of trade has risen from 2.7 billion birr (approximately $143 million) to 20 billion birr ($1.05 billion). Market prices are transparent, quality grades are standardised and contracts are enforced.
  11. Faidherbia: These trees have the curious habit of shedding their leaves during the rainy season, providing nutrients to crops underneath. Maize under Faidherbia albida yielded an average of five tons per hectare compared to two tons per hectare without.  The trees are also a potential source of fodder and firewood and help retain soil cover for enhanced fertility and protection from erosion. Nutrient levels were 42%, 25% and 31% higher with Faidherbia canopies than without for total nitrogen, potassium, and organic carbon respectively.

Editor’s Note:

All citations for the statistics above can be found directly in the report, “Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa”.