The kind of agriculture Africa needs
By Nokutula Mhene
“Agroecology is really common sense. It means understanding how nature works, to replicate the natural workings of nature on farms in order to reduce dependency on external input.” argued Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food as he called for food democracy and agroecology.
I concur with De Schutter, especially since agriculture is one of the biggest earners for African Nations. In most cases, save for a few African countries, agriculture is practiced by smallholders who depend on it to feed their families and as a source of income. Across the continent, smallholders plant their crops, year after year in all kinds of weather. Even if there has been warning that the rains may not be as good, they still plant; holding on to faith! This gambling and practice of faith in some cases pays off, however, given the extent of climate variability due to climate change, the uncertainty may prove to be a losing matter for farmers.
Over recent years, Africa has emerged as a new frontier for the expansion of industrial agriculture. Initiatives like the G7’s New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition and philanthropies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are promoting a model of industrial agriculture that benefits big corporate agribusiness, over the needs of smallholder producers and rural communities. They have used this model to promise a “good life!” This good life involves having enough fertiliser, buying seed from the shops, and planting monocultures which are dependent on world market prices.
Smallholder farmers have been indoctrinated into believing in the version of a “good life”. Unfortunately, the ecologically safe way to plant has been painted as backward! Every year farmers seek to somehow be able to afford the good life. Those that cannot have been drawn into contract farming as they can get the inputs in advance, with a false promise of earning more money! I know that ecological farming affords farmers a chance to fulfil their dreams and live in dignity.
However, this version of the good life has backfired on most farmers! In my travels and work across the African continent, I have met several farmers who lament over the high cost of seeds and fertiliser. I have also met farmers who have entered into contract farming and in the face of erratic weather patterns have found themselves owing “the company.” A farmer that I once met chose to plant cotton, like he did year after year. As he always did, he received inputs from the private company with which he worked. He planted his crop as he always did. However, this particular year, his entire crop failed.
When offtake time came, the company came to collect. He gave the little that he had managed to harvest and they calculated how much was due to him. Before they gave him the money, they subtracted the cost of the inputs they had given. Not only did he not get any money, he was actually in debt. This is a classic example of how big companies, who have been part of the machine spreading the propaganda, have set ideal ground for them to capitalise at the expense of farmers Alas, the so called good life is not so good after all.
In another country I met a woman, who rejected the model of the good life, as defined by her community. She chose to use her traditional seeds and manure for her crops. She used the push-pull method – a pest management approach that uses repellent intercrop and an attractive trap plant – to control pests. She also planted more than one crop as a means of diversification. Although the rains were not good, her traditional seeds fared better than her neighbours. Her inputs cost less than her counterparts hence she was not only able to feed her family and safeguard her environment but she also managed to remain debt free.
I then have to ask myself, have we been forced to define African agriculture in a way that suits only the few who stand to benefit financially? Has the definition of good African agriculture been taken to mean that a few individuals and companies get free land, free labour from smallholders and only pay for the product? If ecological farming received the same level of investment – Research and Development, training and extension – as conventional farming, it could produce yields as high as those in conventional agriculture.
I argue that it is time for Africans to start setting the rules of the game – rules that enable us to produce food sustainably and conserve our environment. This coming World Food Day, five organisations (Greenpeace Africa, Kenya Biodiversity Coalition (KbioC), the Institute for Culture and Ecology (ICE), The Kenya Small Scale Farmers Forum and the Kenya Organic Agriculture Network (KOAN) come together to prove to you that it is possible to fund, scale up and support ecological farming. Kenyan farmers will be coming to the aid of other Kenyan farmers who have been affected by extreme weather patterns by sharing knowledge on ecological farming practices and giving their counterparts seeds to tide them over to the next planting season.
Through a farmer’s trek that starts from Thika to Machakos and Makueni counties, we will prove that sometimes, we do not have to look far for answers to our questions around saving the planet. For the first time in Kenyan history, the farmers will make their demands known to the public, government and donor agencies.
Nokutula Mhene is the Senior Campaign manager, Food for Life Campaign