In too many parts of Africa, a challenging combination of natural resource and labor constraints and limited access to agricultural inputs and technologies reinforces persistent yield gaps and rural poverty traps. Now more than ever, innovative research on sustainable agriculture is crucial to Africa’s well-being.
In 2001-2008, public research and development (R&D) in sub-Saharan Africa averaged more than 20% growth and supported more than 12,000 agricultural researchers, although R&D levels vary widely across countries. Many different scientific advances are underway.
Sustainable Intensification in Agricultural Landscapes. Researchers around the globe are advancing sustainable intensification strategies that use resources and ecosystem services more efficiently, with fewer negative environmental impacts. A global literature review found that many of these strategies can improve both yields and ecosystem services, but with significant variation across methods and agricultural systems. In a recent study of agricultural technologies, particularly strong effects were projected in sub-Saharan Africa for improvements related to drought tolerance, nutrient use efficiency, and adoption of no-till.
Achieving Multiple Climate Benefits in Agricultural Landscapes. As global greenhouse gas levels rise and climate change impacts intensify, scientists are looking for climate change mitigation and adaptation opportunities in the land sector. In Africa, adaptation benefits are likely to be much more important. For example, reduced cereal productivity and food security are anticipated in Africa due to increasing water stress, higher temperatures, and precipitation changes. Importantly, a recent international study identified agricultural practices, such as agroforestry and silvopastoral systems, with strong potential to deliver both mitigation and adaptation benefits at the landscape scale.
Benefits of Agrobiodiversity. Agricultural production systems rely fundamentally on agricultural biodiversity – the variety of animals, plants, and micro-organisms in farm fields, homegardens, and other parts of agricultural landscapes – in order to effectively adapt to external and internal drivers. For example, a recent study documented ways in which farmers cope with and recover from weather extremes by taking advantage of crop diversity and different micro-agroecological zones.
Yet, scientific gaps inhibit integrated landscape management. We need to do more to measure the full set of benefits that result from different management practices in different agricultural landscapes. To understand how agricultural diversification, ecological restoration, and other interventions compare with business-as-usual agricultural practices, we need to link farm-scale data to landscape-scale effects.
Building scientific capacity for integrated landscape management means tackling the highest priority African research needs. This includes anticipating and responding to severe weather, sea level rise, and their threats to communities, agriculture, and economies as well as targeting appropriate technologies to specific regions. African governments can leverage public and private resources, global donor support, and access to regional and global research communities and make investments in research infrastructure and human capacity. Regional and international research platforms can encourage specialization within coordinated, committed research networks including shared ownership of equipment and databases as well as broaden awareness of farmer-driven action research models. Bilateral donors and multi-national companies can co-invest in essential knowledge systems such as seasonal forecasting and GHG emissions estimation.[7, 8]
Proponents of effective, networked agricultural research systems in Africa have a number of “springboards for action.” The National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) and regional academic consortia such as RUFORUM are foundational platforms for advancing Africa-focused science. The Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) are key players for fostering shared research agendas and promoting continued scientific investment in Africa. Major data gaps are being addressed by initiatives like the Africa Soil Information Service and Vital Signs. Key global partners include CGIAR research centers, such as the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and United Nations programs such as FAO’s Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture systems (SAFA) and UNEP’s Ecosystem-based Adaptation (EbA) initiatives.
Integrated, multi-disciplinary, and Africa-focused scientific research is essential to understand the complexity of African agricultural landscapes and make them more productive, sustainable, and inclusive. Investments in agricultural research have been shown to generate 40-60% returns in many different contexts, and R&D commitments by African governments, which currently account for approximately 10% of global spending, can unlock counterpart investments by global donors and the private sector.
What do you think needs to happen to promote African scientific research? Share your thoughts below and be sure to keep an eye on the LPFN Conference in Nairobi!
 Beintema, N., J.G. Stads. 2011. “African Agricultural R&D in the New Millenium: Progress for Some, Challenges for Many.” Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.
 Garbach et al, in submission. Closing yield and nature gaps: multi-functionality in five systems of agroecological intensification.
 Rosegrant M.W., J. Koo, N. Cenacchi, C. Ringler, R. Robertson, M. Fisher, C. Cox, K. Garrett, N.D. Perez, P. Sabbagh. 2014. Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity: The Role of Agricultural Technologies. Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.
 IPCC. 2014. “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects.” Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Barros, V.R., C.B. Field, D.J. Dokken, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee, K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
 Harvey C.A., M. Chacon, C.I. Donatti, E. Garen, L. Hannah, A. Andrade, L. Bede, D. Brown, A. Calle, J. Chara, C. Clement, E. Gray, M.H. Hoang, P. Minang, A. Rodrigues, C. Seeberg-Elverfeldt, B. Semroc, S. Shames, S. Smukler, E. Somarriba, E. Torquebiau, J. van Etten, E. Wollenberg. 2013. “Climate-smart landscapes: opportunities and challenges for integrating adaptation and mitigation in tropical agriculture.” Conservation Letters Vol XX, 1–14.
 Mijatovic D, H. Gruberg, S. Sthapit, Y. Morimoto, R. Udas, R. Pudasaini, R. Gonzales, X. Cadima, P. Maundu, P. Eyzaguirre. (submitted) “Agrobiodiversity – a link between resilience and conservation.”
 Brown, S., A. Grais, S. Ambagis, T. Pearson. 2012. “Baseline GHG Emissions from the Agricultural Sector and Mitigation Potential in Countries of East and West Africa.” CCAFS Working Paper no. 13. CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Copenhagen, Denmark. Available online at: www.ccafs.cgiar.org.
 Thornton P., L. Lipper. 2014. How Does Climate Change Alter Agricultural Strategies to Support Food Security? IFPRI Discussion Paper 01340. CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets.
 FARA. 2013. “Connecting Science: A Science Agenda for Transforming Agriculture in Africa, A Report of an Expert Panel.” Accra, Ghana: Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa.