State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


The Challenge of the Half-Acre Plot

Ask most who have worked in this region, “what characterizes small holder farming in sub-Saharan Africa ?”, and the answer, which sadly, has remained unchanged for the past ten years, will go something like this:  mono-cropping, reuse of seeds season after season, no fertilizer, and  ever diminishing land holding sizes. Add to that the fluctuations in global weather patterns, and what you get is an entire population living on the very fine edge of food security.

When the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) started in 2005, as a vision of Professor Jeffrey Sachs at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, it was to show that a holistic  approach involving health, education, infrastructure and agriculture could stabilize some of the poorest communities in the world and lay the foundation for sustained development.

Launched  in ten countries, and 14 different locations throughout sub-Saharan Africa, one of the first areas the project tackled was food security for the smallholder farmer. “Provide them with high quality seed and fertilizer and you will see a dramatic change,” the agronomists told Jeff, and based on their advisc a program for the universal distribution of hybrid seeds and fertilizer commenced in all the sites. Sure enough, yields tripled in most locations. Food security was established and even after setting aside 1.25  tons for personal consumption there was still some left to sell.

This limited surplus generates $200-300 in earned income – not nearly enough to pull a family out of the poverty trap. So is there a solution for this ?

In deep rural sub-Saharan Africa, poor roads, lack of electricity and water, and a lack of technical skills, all conspire to keep industrialization at arms length. Agriculture remains the dominant engine for economic growth. So as I see it, there are four possible ways for the small holder farmers to grow their incomes: (1) Increase land holding sizes – an unlikely phenomenon for  a multitude of reasons; (2) grow higher value crops or diversify to non-agricultural activities like animal rearing, fish farming, honey production etc.; (3) add value through post processing and completing the value chain; (4) cultivate the same plot of land multiple times through the use of irrigation.

With a social and agriculture program firmly in place the MVP now embarked on the program to increase the incomes of the smallholder farmer. We studied each site carefully, and solutions began to emerge. Global partners stepped in: Ericsson, with cell phone coverage; Mosaic and Agrium, with fertilizer; Panasonic with solar technology; JM Eagle, with piping, just to name a few, and together it began to weave the tapestry of change.  The three examples I have chosen show the nature of the transformation underway.

Completing the Value Chain:

In Ghana, our cluster is located near the city of Kumasi. Mining and timber were once important industries in the region but that activity has diminished greatly, it is an economy now largely driven by palm and cocoa. Households processed the palm fruit, producing an oil with such high free fatty acids that it had little commercial value beyond the local village trade. The trees suffered neglect and eventually most of the fruit remained un-harvested. In 2009 we worked with the villages to change the paradigm. People’s energies were channeled into harvesting the fruit and bringing it to collection points. A transportation system then took it to a mill some 60 kilometers away and the farmers were paid a fair, pre-negotiated price on the spot. For the first time a regular income began to flow into the hands of the poor. 2010 may bring even further change as we begin to build our own factory in which the small holder Palm co-operative will have a share of the profits of the final refined oil. Within the short span of a year over $50,000 has been earned by the community.

Year round horticulture:

Mali saw us take an entirely  different approach. Years of neglect had left a set of 15  gardens abandoned, their fences broken, and no working pumps to access to the water from the Niger river (which sometimes ran no more than 50 meters away), or from wells dug on the property. Our investment helped rehabilitate the infrastructure and 300 women found a way to grow  three irrigated crops of shallots every year – each on their own  200 meter square sub-plot. By the time all 15 gardens are rehabilitated some 4,000 women could be gainfully employed and begin to take their families out of the poverty trap.

Fish Farming and Goat Rearing:

Where land pressures remain acute, and irrigation not a possibility, diversification to non-farming activities offers hope. In our clusters in Kenya and Uganda, the income generation came from fish farming and Boer Goat rearing. Pure bred Boer goats can fetch as much as $300-400 in the market while a  200 meter square pond, growing catfish and tilapia, can generate as much as $1,000/year. In Uganda, 300 such pure bred Boer goats have already been introduced into the community, while in Kenya over 300 fish ponds are now functional.

And so, from shea butter and mangoes in Mali, to cocoa in Ghana, pineapples in Uganda, three seasons of  irrigated maize in Malawi, onions and hibiscus in Senegal, honey and fruit trees in Ethiopia – the opportunities are plentiful. They require patient capital, a completion of the value chains, and a connection to either the local markets, or as in the case of Ghanaian cocoa, to the international markets.

Public-private partnerships will be the early instruments of change in these communities, and with increasing financial stability the investment community will surely follow. In time investors will come to see sub-Saharan Africa as one of the last great opportunities, not for extractive minerals, its oil and gas, but as a vast region, where collaborative agriculture is possible, benefiting the poor and the investor equally.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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