African Farming Wisdom Now Scientifically Proven

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Increasing the agricultural productivity of Africa is critical for the continent’s future development, and the world’s. Two-thirds of Africans derive their main income from agriculture, but the continent has the largest quantity of unproductive – or unused – potential agricultural land in the world.

This means the continent has the potential to become the world’s new breadbasket – but there is a problem. A report by the International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agriculture (IFDC) found the continent had a “soil health crisis” and that three-quarters of its farmlands were severely degraded (New Scientist). The causes of this crisis include overuse of the same plot of land due to population growth, which prevents farmers moving around, and high fertilizer costs, leading to African farmers using just 10 per cent of the world average on their farms.

But a new study shows that an existing practice by some African farmers could help solve this dilemma if it was adopted by the majority.

At the University of Sydney in Australia, a study has confirmed the effectiveness of ants and termites as a tool to increase farm yields in dry areas. It found ants and termites in drier climates of the global South improved soil conditions just as earthworms do in northern, wetter and colder climates. Both termites and ants, by burrowing their way through the soil, carve out tunnels that make it easier for plants to shoot their roots outwards in search of water.

In field experiments, ants and termites helped raise wheat yields by 36 per cent by increasing water and nitrogen absorption. This is critical for agriculture in arid climates.

While termites wreak havoc on crops such as maize (corn) and sugarcane, they are very useful for other African crops.

The Australian research found termites infuse nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen is usually dumped on fields with expensive fertilizers that are subject to market fluctuations. The termites have nitrogen-heavy bacteria in their stomachs, which they excrete into the soil through their faeces or saliva.

The research also found termites helped with reducing water wastage.

This research reinforces what has long been known to some African farmers. Long-held farmer tradition in parts of West Africa uses termites to enhance soil by placing wood on the earth to attract them. By burying manure in holes near newly planted grains, farmers in Burkina Faso attract termites to the soil.

In Malawi, bananas are planted near termite mounds to encourage the creatures. In southern Zambia, soil from termite nests is harvested and used as top soil on agricultural land.

If more farmers adopted this practice, Africa could simultaneously address its chronic malnutrition and hunger problem and contribute to the world’s food needs. As the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) found, “With 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and low crop yields, Africa is ripe for a ‘green revolution’ like those that transformed agriculture in Asia and Brazil.”

McKinsey estimated that Africa’s agricultural output could increase from US $280 billion a year now to US $500 billion by 2020 and as much as US $880 billion by 2030.

The UN recently declared that the world’s population has reached 7 billion. That is many mouths to feed and presents Africa with a dilemma and an opportunity.

And as urban growth accelerates across the global South – the world is now a majority urban place – there is a huge profit to be made from providing food to growing urban populations.

The time to act is now, as there have been reports from African farmers that they are seeing harvests declining by 15 to 25 per cent. And the picture gets gloomier: many farmers think their harvests will drop by half over the next five years.

Given that there are 2,600 different species of termites now recognised in the world (UNEP) and with over 660 species, found in Africa, it is by far the richest continent in termite diversity (Eggleton 2000) and they are proof that an affordable solution is close at hand to the current crisis.

Resources

1) World Vegetable Center: The World Vegetable Center is the world’s leading international non-profit research and development institute committed to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in developing countries through vegetable research and development. Website: http://www.avrdc.org

2) Songhai Centre: a Benin-based NGO that is a training, production, research, and development centre in sustainable agriculture. Website: http://www.songhai.org/english

3) Marketing African Leafy Vegetables: Challenges and Opportunities in the Kenyan Context by Kennedy M. Shiundu and Ruth. K. Oniang. Website: http://www.ajfand.net/Issue15/PDFs/8%20Shiundu-IPGR2_8.pdf

4) 2050: Africa’s Food Challenge: Prospects good, resources abundant, policy must improve: A discussion paper from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Website: http://www.fao.org/wsfs/forum2050/wsfs-background-documents/issues-briefs/en

5) African Alliance for Capital Expansion: A management consultancy focused on private sector development and agribusiness in West Africa. Website: http://www.africanace.com/v3

6) Ants and termites increase crop yield in a dry climate by Theodore A. Evans, Tracy Z. Dawes, Philip R. Ward and Nathan Lo, Nature Communications 2, Article number: 262

7) Integrating Ethno-Ecological and Scientific Knowledge of Termites for Sustainable Termite Management and Human Welfare in Africa by Gudeta W. Sileshi et al, Ecology and Society, Volume 14, Number 1. Website: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art48

8) State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Website: http://www.worldwatch.org/sow11

9) Soil health crisis threatens Africa’s food supply. Website: http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8929-soilhealth-crisis-threatens-africas-food-supply.html

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