The nations of sub-Saharan Africa rarely receive credit today for structural innovation or entrepreneurial spirit. But thousands of African farming communities are earnestly pursuing better ways to grow produce and deliver it to hungry buyers in both their home regions and the big cities beyond. Even if their countries’ national economic numbers don’t show it, these forward-thinking farmers are boosting health and well-being at the local and community levels.
David Spielman, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) resident fellow, spoke to me and THE FUTURIST following a six-year stay in Ethiopia, where he researched agricultural development and farming-related science and technology topics. Spielman is the co-author, with IFPRI colleague Rajul Pandya-Lorch, of the 2008 book Millions Fed, which shares dozens of case studies of individual African rural communities that improved their crop yields and market shares by successfully implementing new farming practices, seed-distribution methods, or food-delivery systems.
This November, Spielman and Padya-Lorch will release an expanded version of the book. It will present all of the background studies that guided each of the 2008 edition’s stories. “It will provide the evidence that proves why each of the methods were successes,” says Spielman. “Think of it as a more technical volume for the more wonkish among us.”
FUTURIST: What are the best mediums for educating farmers in regions of Africa about better farming practices? What types of professionals are needed to operate those mediums?
David Spielman: I think that’s a very astute question; farmer education and farmer extension advisory services are very critical to improving poverty and the supply of food for rural consumers. That said, very few countries have invested enough in farmer education or farmer extensions.
Farmer extension can be a very broadly defined category. Many think it’s only about teaching farmers better practices, but I would argue that it really goes all the way back to basic education. Agriculture is becoming an increasingly scientific and technical practice, even in developing countries given increasing resource scarcities, given the increasing technical complexity, and given the variability that farmers face because of weather changes, or policy changes, or changes in price incentives.
All of these challenges require extensive amounts of education for farmers to be able to cope. And too many countries have not invested enough in education. It puts a real damper on how farmers will be able to manage risk.
FUTURIST: So a large component of improving farmers’ capacity is actually the school system?
David Spielman: Absolutely. And, of course, it’s many components, not just education. Getting the right sequence of events is obviously important.
I was in Ethiopia when the road network expanded very measurably. You’d see the roads being built and you get on the roads, and the first couple of years driving down these roads you’d see that there weren’t any big trucks coming down the roads bringing produce to the markets. The roads were only one piece.
I think there is a combination of many things that are needed. Improving access to education and the quality of education at the primary and secondary level is very important in Africa. That means improving the training among teachers, improving the quality of leadership in the education system, and it has much to do with improving the methodologies used for teaching and for evaluating students and teachers.
Certainly there needs to be some improvement in how farmers are trained to manage more complex production systems or to handle more advanced technologies. And some of that has to do with the way adults learn. People talk about the pedagogy of farmer education, but that’s a poor use of the word pedagogy, because pedagogy refers to children’s education. Adults learn differently than children do.
Earlier approaches to teaching adult farmers were very simplistic. Now instead of commanding farmers, extension teachers are seen as facilitators who are expanding farmers’ learning. As adults, we learn by observing things ourselves, by experience. Experiential learning has a participatory element, and that is allowing farmers to participate in asking questions, finding solutions, and engaging with researchers and extension educators together.
And the other thing is a lot of extension approaches have been based on very generalized recommendations. With climate change, you find that a lot of solutions to farmer problems might have very specialized answers. Farmer A might have different soil or water availability or weather than Farmer Y, so he requires customized solutions.
Also, access to markets may differ from farmer to farmer, so their approaches may have to be customized. This requires new types of extension educators. The extension agent is there to match the farmer with an input supplier or a trader who buys a certain type of output so if a farmer has a certain type of land that’s not very accessible to water, there are some tomatoes that can grow despite the lack of water. And the extension agent might reach out to sellers who have those types of tomatoes, or to a cell phone service that would help the farmer locate sellers who have those types of tomatoes.
FUTURIST: If a farm region increases its food capacity, consumers in Africa’s city areas will only see it if there is solid infrastructure in place to bring the food to them. As agricultural sectors devise new ways to increase their produce output, what kinds of innovations might food distributors, delivery services, and grocers make to keep pace?
David Spielman: One of the first things we need to remember is that farmers themselves are often net consumers. They may produce food for markets, but they themselves have to go out to markets to buy food, as well. Consumers in the city and in the countryside you have areas of surplus and areas of deficit. Getting the infrastructure right so that food can move from surplus area to deficit area is pretty fundamental.
In some areas this function is carried out by the World Food Programme or by NGOs. But many of my colleagues would argue that there are more efficient ways, like developing more sophisticated markets, such as a warehouse receipt system where buyers and sellers would exchange in slips of paper like on a stock exchange. The actual food might not be physically there, but you can enter into an agreement to say ‘you’ve got 50 tons of grain in location X. I want to buy it and have it delivered to location Y. This is what I will pay for it.’
Rather than relying on the World Food Programme or an NGO to move food around the country, market traders can do a good job of it, too, if not better. Less government control and not approaching food as a government control or relief operation, and focusing on the market dynamics, can work in a lot of cases. That’s one way of moving food more effectively from one end of the country to another.
And market strategies can create value in food that people want. There are a lot of employment opportunities that flow from the agro-processing industry. Take cassava as an example. When you process cassava by drying it, by making it into starch, by making it into a cookable substance that the household can make into a meal very quickly, that adds value and increases value, as well—you’re adding more value in the process.
Can you imagine if we had to wake up in the morning and create all our corn-based food from scratch? Having people somewhere in the country do that for us creates value and creates jobs.
FUTURIST: If many experts are correct, climate change could jeopardize the world’s agricultural sectors with increased droughts, erratic weather, and submergence of coastal plains under rising sea levels. If climate phenomena like these take place, what kinds of personnel and infrastructure would countries in Africa need to have put in place in order to contain the damage?
David Spielman: There are a lot of different approaches to mitigating climate change or adapting to climate change. Three that come to mind, the first is investing more in science and technology. This includes creating management practices and new seeds and other inputs that are more resistant to heat, salinity, or excessive cold or moisture. There is a lot of work going on around this, but certainly accelerating the level of research in this area is necessary.
Another way is financial risk management. I have a colleague who worked on index-based insurance, such weather insurance. Farmers could recoup if they lost some of their output. That’s another thing to put in place with respect to climate change.
And a third area would be to diversify sources of income for people so they don’t have concentrated risks in farming, which is particularly susceptible to climate change. That means expanding the rural non-farm employment sector.
In China, jobs were increased in rural areas not by more farming but by associated industries, such as repairing tractors and TV sets. Chinese officials committed to diversifying the employment opportunities in the rural areas so that people have multiple sources of income, so people have more assets to fall back on.
Climate change covers very large swaths of population. If there is a flood, it’s not just the farmers who suffer. There are extreme difficulties in managing climate change when the effects are so wide and felt by so many people at once. But that being said, putting all your eggs in one basket is usually not the best strategy. You want to find a way out of that.
FUTURIST: A “re-greening” of parts of the Sahel has been underway for some time. How far along are these efforts? How much more progress will they probably make? And how big a dividend will they yield for food supplies throughout Africa?
David Spielman: I’m not too sure. Millions Fed has a summary written by Chris Reij (chapter 6) and the Sahel. The changes in Burkina Faso and Niger in terms of soil fertility, increases of tree cover, and diversification of crop production has been tremendous. I think five million acres in Niger and another half million actors in the central plain of Burkina Faso.
The process has been quite tremendous, and it’s been largely driven by community activism and community organizations with support from NGOs and governments. It’s been a very organic, grassroots effort, one based on innovative processes that involve multiple stakeholders and people dedicated to making things happen. It takes a combination of events and individuals to deal with climate change.
I think these types of re-greening initiatives have strong local effects. They improve the local availability of food, the ability of local households to generate income from alternative sources such as livestock, agro-forestry, and other crops. And I think that’s really where the effects are being felt. Whether they are creating massive surpluses that can be exported across the borders, though, that’s probably not an immediate outcome.
FUTURIST: Much has been written about deforestation and the loss of vast tracts of rain forests in areas of Africa. To what extent do agriculture enhancements and “re-greening” initiatives slow – or better still, stop and reverse – this destruction of Africa’s forests?
David Spielman: The re-greening initiatives in Burkina Faso and Niger are in arid areas, not in rain forest areas. Nevertheless, re-greening initiatives are important in rain forest areas. But that’s beyond my area of expertise.