Mark Hillsdon reports on efforts to avoid a looming environmental and human catastrophe by empowering smallholder farmers in climate-smart practices

More than 65% of Africa’s land is considered degraded, and the risk of further desertification grows by the day. Crops now wither in the once fertile fields of northern Ghana, as prolonged droughts dry up water courses, while the mountain forests of Kenya, known as its “water towers”, have been stripped back and denuded by agriculture and logging. In Sudan, the arid climate and poor irrigation mean that more than 500,000 hectares are now affected by salinisation.

A vicious circle of unsustainable farming, which exacerbates climate change and leads to further extreme weather events, is behind the degradation of Africa’s soils. Western farming techniques, which may have yielded crops and vast profits for the last century or more, are now being found wanting, as more and more inputs are needed to repair soils that have become barren and eroded.

Livestock and poor soil management continue to increase agriculture’s carbon footprint, too. It is an environmental catastrophe that also brings human misery: according to the World Economic Forum, 228 million people in Africa face chronic hunger.

Regenerative agriculture will not be realised at a meaningful scale without the buy-in of millions of smallholder farmers

A raft of initiatives and projects continue to try and halt the erosion of Africa’s ability to feed itself, from philanthropic foundations to corporate interventions, with many are now coalescing around regenerative agriculture as a crucial solution. 

According to a report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Vivid Economics, harnessing regenerative agriculture to repair Africa’s degraded lands could be worth $70 billion to farmers. The report demonstrates how a transition to practices such as agroforestry and better soil management can improve human nutrition and livelihoods, and boost ecosystem health.

It also conservatively estimates that regenerative practices could increase yields by 13% by 2040, while also creating five million new full-time jobs in farming, processing and supportive industries. In the same time frame, if 50% of Africa’s farms adopted these techniques, the additional carbon benefit alone could equate to 4.4 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) – almost 10 times South Africa’s annual emissions.

A scientist from the Famine Early Warning System Network in Africa talks to a farmer.  (Credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)

The catch? Commenting in the report, Elizabeth Nsimadala, president of the Pan African Farmers Organization, said: “It will not be realised at a meaningful scale without the buy-in of millions of smallholder farmers. Agribusinesses and governments need to step up their investments and their supportive policies to give agency to the small farmers who, collectively, can make big changes. Maybe then, the report’s best-case scenario will become a reality.”

Africa has 350 million smallholder farmers – more people than the population of the United States –  and involving them is a key part of Restore Africa, a new carbon finance model established by the Global EverGreening Alliance. It has set out to restore 1.9 million hectares of land across six African countries – Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. In May, Climate Asset Management became the first investor in the programme, with a $150 million financing package.

The project will show how corporate investment can significantly increase the benefits of farmer-led land restoration, explains Chris Armitage, chief executive of the alliance. And crucially, money from nearly half of the carbon credits will go back to the communities. 

It’s not just about food security but also providing an additional income stream

“It’s a paradigm shift in the way we support the world’s most vulnerable communities and how we address the impacts of climate change,” he says. “It demonstrates a new model for funding large-scale development initiatives, which puts the people directly impacted by climate change first, and in the process, creates more resilient landscapes.” 

The programme aims to connect multiple stakeholders to create the scale needed to transform and restore ecosystems. And while it is designed to be attractive for corporates and organisations looking to offset their unavoidable carbon emissions, there will be stringent controls, and initiatives that must be signed off by an advisory committee involving the likes of Oxfam and Care International.

“As a result, the corporates that we are working with are only the ones that can demonstrate that they are committed to an ambitious transition,” continues Armitage. “They're not doing business as usual and just looking to purchase carbon credits so that they can keep maximising profits.”

Each of Restore Nature’s farms fit in with local markets that the farmers can sell to. (Credit: Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters) 

Restore Africa will include technical assistance, inclusive employment opportunities ‒ particularly for women ‒ and better routes to market. There will also be a transition back to traditional agroforestry practices, with a re-education in techniques that have been lost over the years.

Harnessing this traditional knowledge is central to the model farms being set up reNature, an organisation looking to regenerate 100 million hectares across Africa, and support 10 million people. The demonstration projects are developed with the support of local NGOs, explains Emily Franklin, reNature’s Africa portfolio manager, and based around crops that people are already used to growing.

Each farm is designed to fit in with local markets that the farmers can sell to, she continues, and where possible they look to link with international off-takers, too. “It’s not just about food security but also providing an additional income stream,” she says.

Often, farmers are the ones who are trying to avoid the dependent relationship with chemicals

ReNature also works with companies looking for support as they move their supply chains onto a more sustainable footing. “We work with them to understand their strategy and then target a certain crop … or a region,” says Franklin, before setting up model farms and developing a replicable approach that can be scaled across their supply chain.

“We train local people in the theory behind regenerative agricultures and how to implement it,” she continues. This then has a multiplier effect, as people replicate on their own plots.

“We are looking for particular outcomes such as increased soil health, increased biodiversity, better farm economic resilience, and obviously a reduction in carbon emissions.”

The Faidherbia albida is a nitrogen-fixing tree indigenous to Africa. (Credit: Wikipedia) 

“The real drive for regenerative agriculture in Africa is coming from the farmers themselves,” she continues. “Often, they are the ones who are trying to avoid the dependent relationship with chemicals.

“Reductions in input costs help the farmers become more economically resilient … (but) they need to learn to trust the new practices, which is where a successful model farm comes in.”

Practices include cover cropping with nitrogen-fixing plants, diversification and crop rotation. There is also a push for no tillage, a transition to biological inputs and agroforestry, with trees allowed to grow among the crops, providing shade and better soil structure and fertility.

Regenerative agriculture is completely couched in indigenous knowledge

To show local farmers how regenerative agroforestry practices can improve biodiversity and restore degraded land, reNature has recently finished implementing a model farm at Ambakofi in Tanzania. The project will restore original forest cover while also encouraging farmers to experiment with different crops, producing fruits and vegetables for food, as well as excess crops, which can be sold.

Local people have already seen that the model farm is more resilient to pests than those plots with a monoculture, explains Franklin, after a liberal application of ash rather than pesticides was used to control an infestation of army worms that had threatened their maize crop.

“It’s about rediscovering the old ways,” she says. “Regenerative agriculture is completely couched in indigenous knowledge.”

A subsistence farmer in Malawi carries maize she has bought after her crop failed. (Credit: Mike Hutchings/Reuters) 

Farmers turning towards agroforestry will be keen to rediscover the Faidherbia albida, says Armitage, a type of acacia that is indigenous across Africa. The nitrogen-fixing tree has adopted a process called reverse phenology, losing its leaves during the growing season, and allowing light to filter through to crops planted underneath. It then grows a full canopy of leaves at the peak of the dry season, offering shade to crops below, while the dead leaves provide the soil with an organic boost. Scientists are still unsure as to why the tree does this.

The tree was regularly cut back to incorporate European farming systems, says Armitage, but can regenerate from stumps. According to the World Agroforestry Centre, 500,000 farmers in Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia intercrop maize with faidherbia, and have reported a doubling or tripling in maize yields. 

Another important tree is Gliricidia sepium, which is used for alley-cropping in Zambia, when crops are grown between rows of trees. Branches are regularly cut down and laid on the ground, where the foliage rots into the soil, while the woody biomass left behind is used for firewood. Over a five-year trial, says Armitage, the process proved to be 90% as efficient as applying chemical fertiliser, while also being cheaper and more sustainable. “This is the essence of regenerative farming,” he says. 

The traditional and the modern need to work together, especially around soil health

Chris Hogg, Nestle’s head of sustainability and communications for Asia, Oceania and Africa, acknowledges the value of regenerative farming, but believes the benefits that conventional agriculture have brought to Africa shouldn’t be ignored. 

Several reports, including one featured in the journal World Food Security, have found that site-specific nutrient management (SSNM) – or the targeted use of fertilisers – can boost yields and bring benefits that ultimately outweigh the cost of the inputs. 

The traditional and the modern need to work together, says Hogg, especially around soil health, where there is now a much more granular and holistic picture of its importance, and how to improve it. 

Farmers are shown how to apply fertiliser through mulch to help improve soil quality. (Credit: Dr Kofi Boa/flickr) 

Around 95% of Nestle’s carbon footprint comes from Scope 3 emissions, with two-thirds of these coming from growing ingredients. By 2030, Nestle has set the goal that 50% ‒ or 14 million tonnes – of ingredients will come from regenerative farming, hence the priority of less carbon-intensive farming practices

In Ghana, through a partnership with the Centre for No-Till Agriculture (CNTA), Nestle is working with the maize farmers who supply its nutrition business, to switch from a reliance on expensive ploughing services, to a cheaper “ripping” service. This process exposes less of the soil, helping it to retain its carbon, while also improving the movement of water through the earth and reducing surface run off. 

Nestle is also looking to introduce premiums to incentivise farmers. In the past these have rewarded quality and productivity, says Hogg, but could soon include the uptake of regenerative practices, too.

Nestle works with over 600,000 farmers around the world, and Hogg says it is crucial to appreciate “that moving from conventional agriculture to regenerative agriculture is going to be a huge shift”.

You can't tell farmers what to do, you have to show them what it can lead to

This is especially true of smallholders. “You can't tell farmers what to do, you have to show them what it can lead to…. If it’s not economically viable, it’s not going to work,” he says.  It requires a leap of faith that practices such as cover cropping and no tillage will, eventually, bring increased yields, he adds.

Although there is a lack of data due to the largely embryonic nature of studies into regenerative agriculture, reports have shown that transferring to regenerative practices can lead to a temporary drop in yields. It is not a quick-fix solution, and takes long term adjustments, although in time reduced inputs and new markets can make farms more profitable. But in the middle of a food crisis, driven by a mixture of climate change and shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, it is hard for African farmers to swap proven chemical input for natural alternatives.

To address the growing threat of famine, the African Development Bank has approved an emergency budget of $1.5 billion to boost food security on the continent. And while the money will be used on climate-adapted seeds and access to training, in South Sudan alone an additional 30 million tonnes of artificial fertiliser will be spread over the land, ensuring that, in the short-term at least, the vicious cycle is set to continue.

Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.

Main picture credit: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters


This article is part of our in-depth Autumn 2022 Regenerative Agriculture briefing. See also:

Regenerative EU sows seeds for farming revolution, but will they grow?

Nature-depleted UK sets sights on greener food system post-Brexit

The pioneers trying to restore life to America’s stressed soils

From hemp to Kernza, the hunt for more resilient food crops

Winemakers turn to sustainability to ride the climate storms

Beef and dairy farms pushed to innovate to tackle methane emissions

Turning cows from climate criminals to heroes with agroforestry

Should we be betting the farm on biochar?

Can sustainable soya farming come fast enough to save the Cerrado?

Comment: Here’s how the EU’s new rules could finally turn the tide on tropical forest loss

regenerative agriculture  Restore Africa  ReNature  sustainable farming  IUCN  WEF  cover cropping  No-till agriculture  climate change 

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