What will the African Agriculture Revolution look like?

by Michael Victor, CPWF

Africa is going through its own agriculture revolution. According to studies from the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food, Africa can produce 3-4 times more food through improved agriculture water management practices.

The learning event on “How can rainwater management help support smallholder farmers’ ability to adapt to climate variability and change?” explored how rainwater management strategies have the potential to boost agriculture production across the board in Africa and improve livelihoods.As the President of the International Fund for Agriculture Development Dr. Kanayo F. Nwanze stressed in his opening remarks at Agriculture Day, “the new green revolution will not be technology driven but have a diversity of solutions which are locally adaptable and appropriate. The next revolution will be knowledge intensive, not input intensive”.

The introductory session raised the issues rainfed agriculture is the predominant form of agriculture in Africa. Yet this has not been recognized in government or investment policies, as the focus has been on large infrastructure for water whether it is large dams or large-scale irrigation.

Water storage, in its various forms, provides a mechanism for dealing with rainfall and climate variability that, if planned and managed correctly, increases water security, agricultural productivity and adaptive capacity. Systems that combine complementary storage options are likely to be more adaptable and acceptable than those based on a single storage type. For example, scoping studies indicate that while 4.6 million people on 9.4 million ha of land could benefit from water storage leading to full irrigation, more than 27 million people on 64 million ha of land could benefit immediately from soil moisture management.

The agriculture transformation in Africa will also take a different approach to agriculture water management. Livelihood strategies and landscapes vary across sub-Saharan Africa and studies have shown that global climate change will affect river basins in different ways.  The most difficult changes to handle are likely to be increases in seasonal and inter-annual variability of rainfall in many of the basins, which is particularly challenging in sub-Saharan Africa where primarily smallholder rainfed agriculture is the main mode of agriculture production.

As Tilahun Amede, CPWF Nile Basin Leader said, “Rainwater management strategies also need to be linked to market incentives. It was one thing to talk about landscape management and conservation but it has to have tangible outcomes for local farmers”.

The learning event explored five different successful rainwater management strategies and how they can have wider impact.

Zai Pits in-situ water management (Volta basin), an indigenous practice that spread widely with large benefits.  Zai pits have been demonstrated to increase cereal yields by a factor of 10 and also allows collecting 25% of a run-off coming from five times its area. The impacts in Burkina Faso have been impressive with more than 300,000ha of land revitalized through zai and an increase of 80,000tons of food.

Groundwater utilization (Volta and upper Nile) – necessity induced innovation has increased the spread of shallow groundwater irrigation and government investments have paved the way for more cost intensive deeper wells for community scale irrigation.

Landscape management (upper Nile) – linking food aid to rehabilitation efforts provided incentive for collective action through which community benefits could be realized. A landscape approach allows for impacts to be seen at a wider level.  In one watershed area in Ethiopia, more than 4,500 households were active in activities allowing for wider impact at the landscape level.

In-field Rainwater harvesting (Limpopo) is a climate smart sustainable technique that contributes to increased plant available water, buffering during dry spells and increased yields. More than 1400 households are using this technology and it has increased household food security.

Small reservoirs (Volta) can support adaptation to climate change by storing water during the rainy season to be used further during the dry season or time of erratic rainfall. For millions of smallholder farmers throughout West African and even in Southern Africa, reliable access to water is the difference between self-sufficiency and hunger.

Participants suggested that the key ways to bring these to scale included:

  • A combination of bottom up farmer to farmer approaches and top-down policies which are conducive to climate smart agriculture options
  • These approaches can be promoted through different policy mechanisms, such as food security policies, which many of these approaches focus on.
  • The specific approaches should be seen as part of a package or suite of technologies that can be adapted to local contexts.
  • Linking to markets is important to ensure there are incentives for uptake these technologies and higher value crops could–offset potential labour and investment costs.

In the discussions today, it was affirmed that many of the approaches and technologies that we, and others, have been promoting for poverty reduction and food security are also “climate smart”. This should allow us to link water, food security and climate change agendas more closely.