Africa’s forests need not be the price we pay for food security

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Africa’s forests need not be the price we pay for food security

Dr. Hezron Mogaka is the Theme leader Natural Resources Management and Eco-systems Services at the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa, ASARECA. He spoke to 256BN on the sidelines of a regional workshop on Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation in the EAC, COMESA and SADC regions on November 27,2015- Excerpts.

Dr Hezron Mogaka Theme leader Natural Resources and Eco-Systems Services ASARECA

You make the argument that Africa is feeding its rapidly expanding population at the expense of forests. How else can the continent achieve food security without encroaching on forest lands?

One of the things we need to take cognizance of is that despite the fact that the ecological system of the African continent is very fragile; our soils are still fairly good. We still have a lot of water within the region and that is why when we talk about lack of water within the region we are talking more about economic water scarcity than physical water scarcity. In physical terms the quantity available is enough. So the best thing we can do to increase crop yield without necessarily expanding into forest areas first is to invest in crop intensification. That means you use the same area but you intensify your activities both in terms of ensuring there is improved soil nutrients, you use your water resources in a more efficient way and you use improved varieties. That way you will be able to even double the yields without encroaching on forest areas. The solution is not necessarily to control population growth because the population can be an important resource. It is never a liability if it is a quality population and the best thing is to use the available land resources in a more intensive way.

How do we make sense of the counter narratives of a rising Africa where other people see opportunity on the continent and the other of declining food productivity; what are the continents future prospects in the face of climate change?

In the 1970’s and eighties, Africa was largely considered a doomed continent. But from the 1990’s to the 2000’s, the popular view has been that Africa is on the rise. When you look at economic growth, some of the fastest growing economies are based in Africa for example Rwanda, Ethiopia and even Kenya. So there is that bright side of Africa when looked at from macro-economic performance. But when you look at the micro-indicators, for instance when you look at water resources, the    eutrophication levels are increasing just as deforestation is increasing. When you look at soil degradation, it is also increasing. But the paradox is that deforestation could be fueling economic growth although that may not necessarily be sustainable. Also you could be having the levels of eutrophication increasing in the water bodies as a consequence of increased economic activity. So a point of equilibrium must be found to satisfy both economic and environmental considerations.

What one has to bear in mind though is that economic growth driven by mining and other environmental resources is not sustainable. That is why we are saying that with the coming in of climate change, the population is going to become more vulnerable because the first thing that climate change affects is the ecosystems. And given that our populations depend so much on agriculture, their livelihoods are going to be compromised and that is why we are saying that we have got two narratives – an Africa rising in respect to economic growth and the indicators are there – that is from the macroeconomic point of view- and the other narrative where the status of environmental resources is actually declining. Now we need to balance the act by looking after the environmental resources that are fuelling this economic growth.

That sounds grim, yet you and other scholars insist we should be optimistic?

We need to be optimistic if only to avoid using a lot of negative energy. Anywhere you use negative energy; the returns are almost zero, on the other hand when you are optimistic you tend to use your energy looking for solutions. That is why we say we are here as solution seekers because there is no value to lamenting about our current position. The mistake we often make in Africa is to lament so much about our existing situation that we lose sight of the solutions.

So looking at our current agricultural situation it is declining in terms of productivity or it has stagnated; but we should not spend so much time discussing the decline or stagnation but think in terms of how to increase agricultural productivity. When you are optimistic you tend to focus more on your opportunities than your constraints.

How do we turn round declining productivity in agriculture?

The answer is to enhance agricultural intensification, develop our markets, and then enhance value addition. The Last thing is to use existing resources more efficiently and then deploy the science and technology which already exists. If you put all those factors together, you are likely to increase your agricultural productivity on a sustainable basis.

It has been argued that there is disconnect that separates the generators of knowledge and the institutions that are supposed to adopt and put it into policy frameworks and practice. How can this gap be bridged?

We have to understand that Africa’s challenges and problems are not necessarily due to inadequacy of technology and innovation. The technologies and innovations are in place but the challenge has been adoption rates that are not commensurate with the rate of degradation of the natural resources. That is one thing that needs to be addressed because we have the institutions which are capable of generating the right   technologies and interventions. When you look across the continent, we have research institutions and on the other hand we have the policy making organs – the parliaments and local governments.

But for a very long time we have had the researchers operating in their own sphere and the policy making organs in another. That is one area where the linkage has been weak. Because the knowledge and technology generators don’t talk with the planning and policy organs, we may not be addressing the correct priorities. But that is changing over time and at big meetings these days you find more cross-cutting representation and if this can be cascaded down to the lower levels, you will have better communication. We also need to work out the mechanisms that enhance the adoption of technologies.

When you attend any agricultural exhibition these days, you find a multiplicity of technologies. With so much choice and aspirations how do you determine what is appropriate?

Appropriateness is determined first and foremost by the level of empowerment and social economic status of the adopters. A technology that may be expensive for one farmer could be inappropriate because of financial considerations but the same could be appropriate for the farmer who is empowered. The other consideration is related to the environment and ecological considerations. Therefore, the designers of any agricultural technology must maintain constant consultations with the intended users so that the users are able to give a sense of what to them equates to appropriateness in terms of cost or utility. When such contact is maintained, the designer will be able to come up with a technology or intervention that responds to the needs of the farmer and the farmer will have the willingness to adopt it. And then the most important thing is that if the technology proves to have very high returns to the farmers, you don’t even need an extension agency to drive its adoption in much the same way nobody has ever done extension of the boda boda yet it has spread across Africa.

That means that if the users can see economic sense in that technology and equally the moment farmers see the economic value in our interventions, adoption rates will increase under their own steam.

Why should we put faith in Climate Smart Agriculture and how can we make it work?

Climate smart agriculture is one approach to enhancing food productivity, increasing resilience as well as reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. The technologies and approaches are already there and they have been tested. What may vary from country to country is the capacity to absorb these technologies because capacity is defined in terms of financial and economic resources and availability of the human resources and technical knowhow. We have limited institutional capacity but that capacity can be built on. In terms of the frameworks you need, you may need a legal framework and policies to support the implementation of the technologies that are there. But what we need most is to demonstrate that these technologies can enhance food security and we need to demonstrate that at scale and that it can also empower communities economically.

Interview first published in:

1. The East African

2. Business News

Date Published: 
Monday, 07 December 2015