Agricultural Development of sub-Saharan Africa: Who Carries the Burden?

23 November 2016 Geoffrey Craggs, JP, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Landcare Research Programme


The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in Paris in 2015 saw the launch of the 4 per 1000 Initiative: soils for food security and climate (4‰ Initiative). As previously highlighted by FDI, the 4‰ Initiative is a voluntary plan for action to address the effects of climate change through improvements that will result in healthier and more productive soils. At COP22 held in Marrakech in 2016, a plan to compliment and support the 4‰ Initiative was agreed. Termed Adaption of African Agriculture (AAA), this initiative aims to reduce the vulnerability of Africa and its agriculture to climate change.


The 4‰ Initiative emphasises supporting developing countries. Concentrating on the sub-Sahara region of Africa (the area of the African continent south of the Sahara Desert and that includes all African states except Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia and Western Sahara), the AAA will direct attention towards reducing Africa’s vulnerability to climate change by implementing projects to improve and enhance soil management, control water used in agriculture and developing tools and technology to aid mitigating climate change. These projects are economically vital as they will secure food production capacity both for local consumption and for the global export of primary produce.

Africa contains up to 60 per cent of the planet’s unexploited agricultural land. As a response to human activities and inappropriate land-management practices such as over-exploitation, shifting cultivation and the introduction of invasive species, agricultural lands have become degraded and with little rain and a changing climate, have resulted in some areas succumbing to desertification. The continued loss of productive agricultural land could result in a reduction in the annual African crop yields to as low as 20 per cent by 2050. This is an important prediction given that by 2050 global agricultural production needs to grow twofold in order to feed a population of nine billion, where up to 90 per cent will be concentrated in Asia and Africa. An additional statistic reports that 500 million hectares of land are moderately or severely degraded in Africa, equating to 27 per cent of degraded soils worldwide.

Much of sub-Saharan Africa relies upon subsistence farming to meet local food requirements. The risk and consequence of failure, for farmers and their families, is often very high. Smallholder farmers and land-managers do not have the capacity to employ contemporary land management practices, designed to protect and nurture soil health. Often agricultural equipment is poor or obsolete and access to training and information about new and emerging technologies is beyond local resources. Currently, sub-Saharan, subsistence farming methods do not incorporate crop diversification and rotation. Thus, soil fertility is degraded by the loss of nutrients which, in turn, reduces crop yield. Risk is compounded by changing climatic patterns particularly in areas where essential water resources are provided by seasonal rainfall. In addition, traditional, though out-dated, systems of livestock management lead to over-grazing, soil compaction and degradation to water courses from damage to streambanks and siltation. In some areas “slash and burn” cultivation is still employed with no regard for the protection and improvement of fragile soils.

The AAA will focus on realistic and achievable ways of rectifying these agricultural deficiencies and to assist, rather than burden, the small landholder. The AAA will promote suitable alternatives aligned to planting agroforestry and forage legume crops that will build organic matter and importantly, promote sequestering of atmospheric carbon permanently into the soil.

The use of soil enriching fertilisers and nutrients are resources that are currently under-utilised in the region. The major factors restricting their use relate to cost and availability of products. The matching of the appropriate product regional soil type and climate conditions is also an issue. Often there is limited knowledge and understanding of the use of organically-based fertilisers. Accordingly, the AAA initiative will include an emphasis on improving soil-fertility through training and making information available to farmers and land managers to increase their appreciation of the importance of soil management.

The task being undertaken by the AAA is enormous, but sub-Saharan Africa has a critical role to play in global food security and may also be significant in the mitigation of the effect of high greenhouse gas levels. It is an issue of global importance and therefore, should be resource appropriately. The promotion of improvements in agricultural productivity in the sub-Sahara, significant investment from foreign and domestic partners is required to mitigate the risks currently being borne by smallholder farmers.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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