Fundamental changes needed to achieve sustainable agriculture
“Either sustainable agricultural intensification is adopted in the Central Africa region, or we may find ourselves in a situation of war, not because of politics or ethnic differences, but war for food and space.”
That was the stark warning by the director general of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), Dr. Nteranya Sanginga, at the opening of a 4-day CIALCA (Consortium for Improving Agriculture-based Livelihoods in Central Africa) conference on Challenges and opportunities for agricultural intensification of the humid highland systems of sub-Saharan Africa, in Kigali, where farm researchers, development experts and other stakeholders were gathered to take stock of agricultural development efforts in Central and sub-Saharan Africa and chart a path towards food security for the region .
The conference was highly relevant to the challenges that the Central Africa region is currently facing, like climate change, rapid population growth and intense land pressure. “In Rwanda and Burundi we have a huge population density with almost 400 inhabitants per square kilometer. Can the land support the population we have?” Sanginga asked, adding that it’s time to focus on practical, evidence-based solutions that will forever end the cycle of hunger, poverty and civil conflict.
The conference did not only focus on the existing problems, several practical solutions that would help move the region toward food security were identified and recommended. Participants agreed that agricultural research and development efforts should focus on sustainable agricultural intensification, which combines the most effective and sustainable approaches to improving farm yields. Challenges, problems and successes faced while trying to implement sustainable agricultural intensification in different places were shared by a variety of speakers.
The research done by CIALCA on smallholder production systems in central Africa shows how small scale farmers and their large families are affected due to low productivity caused by poor soils, and their inability to improve that because of the limited availability of crop manure to improve the quality of the soil and financial constraints to get access to mineral fertilizers.
The need for and importance of research and scientific innovations in improving agriculture productivity was especially highlighted in the conference, and the deputy director general of Rwanda Agricultural Board (RAB), Daphrose Gahakwa, pointed out how Rwanda has been able to achieve great things because of them in just four years. “In 2007, 20 out of 30 districts in Rwanda were reported as being food insecure. Today, as a result of increased public investment in agriculture and the country’s National Crop Intensification Program, all of Rwanda’s districts are now food secure. All that has been a result of being at the forefront of using research and scientific innovations to develop agriculture,” she said.
Ernest Ruzindaza, the permanent secretary for agriculture in Rwanda, noted the importance of linking research knowledge to the needs of farmers on the ground in order to find relevant and adequate solutions for them and taking a more systemic approach to ensure food security and eradicate poverty. Boudy van Schagen, knowledge sharing specialist at CIALCA, echoed that sentiment by saying that “we need the researchers to be acutely aware of farmer realities. That way, scientific knowledge can have the kind of impact we all hope for.”
The participants in the conference were able to witness what Rwanda is doing on a field trip to different regions of the country. In Bugesera in Eastern Province, they witnessed how rice farmers in Ruhuha are benefiting from technological innovations in improving their productivity.
The fertilizer that is used, Urea, is usually a powder. The International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) in partnership with CIALCA and RAB, brought a new technology in form of a machine that turns the powder into granules that they can directly put in the ground between plants of rice, and it will stay longer because it dissolves more slowly and has more time to spread to the plants as it cannot be washed away by water.
Leah Mukamwiza, a 56-year old rice farmer who is using the new granules, said she prefers it to the powder that had to be applied several times in one season. “With the granules, we only apply the fertilizer once in a season. The productivity has also increased as I used to harvest 3 bags of rice, but I can easily get 5 bags now,” she explained.
Grace Kanonge, from the university of Zimbabwe’s research team, was much impressed by what was being done. She said that the idea of transforming powder fertilizers into granules is something she was taking home with her and hoping to start applying it. “I believe it can be used for other crops besides the rice,” she pointed out.
Sustainable intensification of agriculture is possible and can be successfully implemented as the results in Rwanda have demonstrated. Daphrose Gahakwa commented on how Rwanda has been able to generate and develop demand driven agricultural innovative technologies all the while preserving natural resources. “The country is now able to export surplus crops to neighboring countries and is the only country in the region not dealing with food crisis,” she remarked
Dr. Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute, said that this is the right time to decide which way to take agriculture in the future. He pointed out the need to find and implement solutions that restore and protect the biodiversity, and advised that the continued use of land for roads and house building as the population grows should be controlled as it greatly reduces the land for cultivating and affects the livelihoods not only of the farmers, but also the whole population.
Herren showed that the programs will be more successful when scientific research and policymaking are connected and work hand in hand. “Science has come up and is still coming up with a lot of good innovations but the policies have not followed,” he said. “Business-as-usual is not an option; we need to change the paradigm. We need a fundamental shift, something different, not more of the quick fixes.”