November 25, 2014

Making Large Land Initiatives in Africa Work: Policy Reforms that Support Ecosystem-Based Approaches

Richard Munang, UN Environment Robert Mgendi, UN Environment

This post is part of an online discussion on large-scale land interventions that runs through December 14th. Can these initiatives fulfill their promises? Comment below or send a max 800 word response to

Nearly 240 million people, or 1 in every 4 persons, in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) lack adequate food. Record food prices and drought are pushing more people into hunger and poverty. In the face of this, we must ask, how can we build a food secure Africa?

In resolving the perennial food security challenge in Africa, the Maputo and Malabo declarations lay a basis for scaled up agricultural production, and with this, a move toward large scale agriculture seems to be taking shape in the continent. Collaboration between governments, development partners and the private sector are actualizing these aspirations through public, private partnerships (PPPs). The New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition which pledges to accelerate agricultural production and lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2022 and the GROW Africa are typical examples of the new direction African governments are taking, that involve large scale land initiatives.

With such investments, a critical discussion of whether they will lead to sustainable food security in Africa is warranted.

Dairy shed in Kitale, Kenya. Photo by Chris Planicka/EcoAgriculture Partners

A dairy shed in Kitale, Kenya. Photo by Chris Planicka/EcoAgriculture Partners

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization defines four pillars of food security, physical availability of food, economic and physical access to food, food utilization and stability of the three aforementioned pillars over time. While these pillars provide a useful framework for understanding food security, the vital environmental dimension of food security, the ecological foundation of the food system which underlies food production, encompassing the resource base supporting food production (land & water) and ecosystem services provided by nature (such as soil formation, nutrient recycling, biodiversity etc.) form a major component of food systems that remains largely ignored under conventional farming systems of the type promoted in many large scale initiatives.

Considering that African small holders produce about 80% of the food, there have been numerous calls for a different approach to these large scale agriculture investments. The main point of contention has been that the initiatives as currently constituted, where small scale rural farmers, the supposed main beneficiaries,  are shut out of negations, and with companies shifting significant investments to non-food crops, including cotton, biofuels and rubber, or to projects explicitly targeting export markets, risk losing out on poverty reduction, food security, climate change adaptation and livelihood enhancement, the supposed primary aims.

Ecological degradation risk is also high. For example, the extensive irrigation schemes for new plantations can reduce water availability for other users, such as local communities, smaller farmers and important other rural groups like pastoralists. Such is the case in Tanzania’s Rufiji basin, which accounts for one third of Tanzania’s rainfall and a quarter of its river flows. This is not to say there is no role for large-scale agriculture, or that African governments should not incentivize responsible private sector investment to meet developmental goals. But appropriate policies should be in place that take into consideration the need to empower rural small holders, while ensuring environmental sustainability as well as keeping ecosystems which provide necessary services intact.

What must change to achieve food security in Africa?

Current food production systems, under some projections of the business-as-usual case, will only be able to meet 13% of the continents food needs by 2050. Food stress on the continent will be greatly exacerbated. Conventional food production systems, through deforestation for agricultural expansion, over use of fertilizers and other chemicals which pollute the soil, water and air and kill insect pollinators, reduce the capacity of ecosystems to provide food. Over all, it is increasingly appreciated that conventional food production expansion approaches undermine the ecosystem services that food production depends on. To safeguard future food security it is necessary to implement approaches that work with nature and not against it.

Ecosystem based adaptation (EBA) approaches, an alternative to conventional approaches, aim not only to maintain but also to improve the fertility and productivity of ecosystems. Such sustainable approaches are implemented to prevent soil erosion, improve soil fertility and enhance biological diversity. And with this, is an improvement in yields. The EBA approaches are also easily adaptable in most rural communities, since they involve agricultural practices that have been used traditionally. Considering that 60% of African farmers are rural and small holders, this fact constitutes a big plus.

Healthy bush beans grow on a small farm in Bungoma, Kenya, where vegetable production has been encouraged to improve local food security and farmer incomes.

Healthy bush beans grow on a small farm in Bungoma, Kenya, where vegetable production has been encouraged to improve local food security and farmer incomes.

This brings to the fore the question of why these approaches remain largely invisible to mainstream agricultural policy at both national and regional levels in Africa.

The fact that concepts of EbA are considered relatively new, (despite being millennia old) is a possible explanation. Related to this, is the need for NGOs and responsible investors to accelerate scaling up of these approaches, so as to make them more visible to mainstream policy makers.

Going forward, to ensure sustainable food security, there is need for large scale land initiatives to focus on application of ecosystem based approaches. Policy and institutional reform is only one of several recommendations on how best to upscale EbA approaches in Africa. Others include strengthening knowledge management, increasing communication and outreach, supporting capacity building, reinforcing economic incentives and private sector engagement.

Policy reforms to support upscale of EbA approaches.

Accelerating the use of nature based approaches for food security will require not only enabling policy and legislation that will adequately incentivize farmers to invest in them, but also capacity building at local, national and regional levels.

For instance, it is widely agreed that land rights are essential in motivating farmers to make short and long-term fixed investments in their farms that will increase agricultural productivity, raise household incomes, and move the needle on the goal of alleviating global poverty.

However, land tenure systems in Africa are not adequately structured and not inclusive. Tenure of over 90% of land remains outside the formal legal system, and the risk of dispossession remains apparent. Indeed, it is observed that only a small fraction of land in Africa is subject to individual titling. Most of the land is community-owned, and in some countries state-owned. To incentivize small holders to invest in nature based technologies, they need to feel secure about the ownership of their land. In addition, women farmers, who make up 70% of Africa’s farmers, are locked out of land ownership due to customary laws.

Addressing such governance issues at the national level is vital for achieving increased productivity, rapid economic growth and translating it into significantly less poverty and more opportunity for Africans, including women. For consideration, an appropriate policy that mainstreams affirmative action in land allocation and ownership could be considered as among interventions to bring women at a par with their male colleagues on access to land as a factor of production. In addition, appropriate policy to secure individual farmers’ rights to land is needed to ensure farmers feel secure that they will reap the benefits of investing in new nature based technologies.

Another bottleneck policy area is the outdated and counterproductive forestry legislation that discourages farmers from investing in protecting, regenerating, and sustainable harvesting of trees in agroforestry systems, through ambiguous provisions such as fines for unspecified offences that allow unscrupulous forest agents to exploit farmers. Such are common in a number of countries in West Africa. These should be reformed to facilitate the involvement of farmers and forest communities in conservation measures.  Appropriate policy at local level that gives farmers and forest community access to forests and assigns them responsibility and structure to preside over farmer managed natural regeneration of forest trees could be a viable strategy of involving communities in sustainable management of forest resources.

Agricultural development policies that emphasize agricultural modernization through the increased use of mechanization and subsidized inputs, while neglecting measures needed to reduce land degradation, facilitate soil and water conservation among other ecological techniques constitute another area that needs agent attention throughout most of Africa. For instance, in Senegal, the Ministry of Agriculture had encouraged the use of tractors and animal ploughs to plow in straight rows, even if it meant destruction of existing agroforestry areas that had protected soil from erosion and helped to replenish soil organic matter and nutrients. Such policies are an impediment to scale up of agroforestry and other improved land and water management practices and should be reformed, to ensure sustainable practices are mainstreamed.

The strengthening of local institutions, such as village development committees, to improve local natural resources governance constitutes an opportunity to create an enabling regulatory environment at local levels to ensure local and hence effective enforcement of rules governing access and use of natural resources. For instance, these could be regulations for protection and management of on-farm trees, to ensure benefits of agroforestry are achieved by farmers in a given locale.

The overuse of chemical fertilizers, known to have negative impacts on ecosystems, is also encouraged by policies such as subsidies. There is therefore, a need to reassess support of large subsidies for mineral fertilizers, which is only encouraging their intensive use and consequent damage to ecosystems, and increase support for balanced approaches combining outreach, research, and extension for nature based approaches for food security.

There is also a need to maximize policy frameworks to integrate ecological based approaches for food security and adaptation at the regional level. This can be fostered through regional initiatives like the CAADP. The aim should be to ensure proposed policies are inclusive, and that they ensure community involvement in their formulation, cascading to the roots and that they incorporate indigenous knowledge, build collaboration through public-private partnership, build capacity regarding food security, climate change and ecosystem measures, ensure budgetary allocation for food security measures, have clear monitoring and evaluation measures and their formulation is evidence-based.

Only by  doing  this can  we foster a future  that is not marked by conflict, but by cooperation, not by human suffering, but by human progress as we seek to achieve, in the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘an Africa where there would be work, bread, water and salt for all’.

Dr. Richard Munang is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Africa Regional Climate Change Programme Co-ordinator.  He tweets as @mtingem. Mr. Robert Mgendi is the Ecosystem based Adaptation Programme Officer with the UNEP’s Regional Office for Africa Climate Change Programme. The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which they are affiliated.

1 Comment

  • Adedamola Ogunsesan
    December 1, 2014 at 12:01pm

    While domesticating policy and land reforms, we should be more specific in terms of what we want achieved. For instance , If we are implementing the Maputo and Malabo declarations which ask for certain percentage of Government spending on agriculture. We should be more explicit that such funds should not be expended on recurrent expenses within the the agricultural sector rather there should be used more in direct interventions which addresses the challenges of small holders farmers. The use local indigenous knowledge is also key in ensuring Ecosystem Based Approach in agricultural practice. There is need to reform our policies to encourage local participation in agroforestry and carter for new emerging issues such as charcoal production which is posing new challenges to farming and forestry in sub Saharan African countries

  • Linked from What are the conditions for successful large-scale land interventions? - Agriculture and Ecosystems Blog   November 26 10:00am

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