How Regenerative Agriculture Can Increase Africa’s Food Production

Author: Agnes Kalibata [in]Ndidi Nwuneli [in]The Great Event [in]and Zoë Karl-Waithaka [in]

As global actors work towards COP27, the next climate change conference, and accelerate efforts to tackle the climate crisis, increasing attention has been paid to “regenerative agriculture”, a widely used but not always well understood term. How it is defined globally will have a major impact on how it is applied. To ensure that global application takes into account African practices, it is imperative that we, as Africans, define regenerative agriculture and share our local practices and local knowledge with the world.

Regenerative agriculture describes an agricultural production system that aims to have a lower or net positive environmental impact. Regenerative practices therefore avoid the key problems of highly industrialized agricultural production that harm soil health, including large tracts of monocultivated land, chemical runoff, overexploitation of water resources, and high levels of chemical and hormonal residues in food.

How does this definition translate to the African context, particularly for the continent’s tens of millions of small farming families who are among the world’s most vulnerable to climate change?

We believe the solution lies in high yielding, resilient and adaptive practices (HYRAP) that form Africa’s approach to climate-smart agriculture. High performance, because the vision must help feed people and improve livelihoods in food systems. Resilient, because practices need to be diversified to recover and thrive under the inevitable impacts of climate change, and adaptive, because weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable – a huge challenge, as the continent is almost exclusively dependent on rainfall rather than irrigation.

HYRAP is not new to Africa. African farmers already use these practices across the continent in land systems, cropping systems and integrated systems. In the future, attention must be paid to recognizing the existence of these practices, and encouraging their acceptance and expansion.

Soil systems. Farmers are increasingly adopting no-tillage and small-tillage, where the crop is sown directly on uncultivated or lightly cultivated soil from the previous crop. Some also incorporate crop residues as mulch. 30% of South African farmers use this type of land system.[1]

Another example is water harvesting and irrigation. Although this practice is an effective way to reduce dependence on rain, the application is very little exploited as only about 5% of Africa’s agricultural land is irrigated. An increasingly prevalent approach is solar-powered irrigation systems, which have the benefit of delivering predictable amounts of water while avoiding the environmental challenges of conventional petrochemical systems.

Farming systems. One notable type of cropping system is crop rotation, the practice of growing different and diversified crops in succession on the same land to preserve the soil’s productive capacity and manage pests and diseases. The rotation of legumes, such as beans with maize, is an example of a remarkable practice used by farmers in various parts of Africa for centuries. They understand that crop rotation improves soil quality, reduces pests and diseases, improves crop yields, and reduces reliance on pesticides.[2] Also, intercropping (growing one crop next to another) improves farm biodiversity and soil quality, and helps farmers reduce their dependence on a single crop.

Another common approach is to grow drought- and heat-resistant crops to maintain food and biomass production under drought conditions. Fonio millet, perhaps Africa’s oldest crop, is grown in many parts of West Africa, including Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad. This very fast growing specimen is very resistant to drought conditions. It is more nutrient dense than alternative grains such as wheat. In addition to providing food for human consumption, it is a good source of fodder for livestock.

Integrated systems. This method deploys several mechanisms for pest control. Kenya, for example, has used pheromone traps to combat fruit flies in mango crops. Other countries have made changes to irrigation practices to reduce the potential for pest problems, such as avoiding overwatering, which can increase root diseases and weeds.

Agroforestry, which includes the cultivation of trees, is practiced in Kenya and Zambia. It is also gaining momentum across Africa through various initiatives, such as the Grand African Savannah Green Up.[3]

Increasing adoption HYRAP across Africa

Adoption of HYRAP has the potential to improve the livelihoods and resilience of farmers, processors and consumers. Likewise, in the case of Africa, it can help restore natural systems that have been severely eroded from centuries of agriculture.

Pilots across the continent are actively exploring strategies that reward individual farmers implementing HYRAP with mobile and fintech-enabled carbon finance. However, so far, small and medium-sized food processing companies have generally been overlooked. These companies, which source from smallholder farmers and sell to consumers in Africa, play a vital role in the food chain and deserve to be included in such initiatives.

It is also essential that aggregators, logistics providers, processors and distributors work in priority value chains to reduce post-harvest losses and invest in cost-effective and climate-friendly solutions.

We recommend that the public, private and social sectors take these actions to support the implementation of HYRAP.

Push ppublic expenditure which supports implementation RENT

Fiscal incentives. National governments can demonstrate their commitment to HYRAP in agricultural policies and budgets. This includes tax incentives for manufacturers, farmers and processors who provide inputs for diverse, nutrient-dense and sustainable foods. Governments can also impose taxes on imported food to encourage local production.

HYRAP extension. To improve resilience and improve livelihoods, governments can implement policies on HYRAP and disseminate it through the extension system. They can also codify local Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) that improve the resilience and natural outcomes of food production.

Subsidies In addition, governments can create subsidies to drive the adoption of HYRAP across value chains to reduce the cost of inputs. This is especially important for seeds that are sensitive to heat, drought and flooding.

Facilitating cross-border and intercontinental trade in agricultural inputs and raw materials

To support production and interregional value chain development, it will be important for governments to streamline the customs process by establishing one-stop shops that recognize the perishable nature of agricultural goods.

uunlock access to capital

Priority sector loans. Banks may be required to allocate larger portions of their loan books to agriculture and food systems investments. India’s priority sector lending, which requires banks to allocate 30% of their balance sheets to the rural economy, provides a good model to follow. This policy has had a significant impact on the growth of India’s agricultural sector in general with notable examples in agricultural technology.

Mixed finance. Philanthropic and donor capital can be used to reduce the risk of lending to agricultural and food businesses, thereby allowing for lower interest rates and borrowing costs. One such approach involves the use of first loss guarantees (a mechanism where a third party agrees to cover a certain amount of losses to reduce risk to lenders) along with incentive payments. Aceli Africa and ABC Fund provide excellent examples.

This lower-cost capital should be even more accessible to farmers using HYRAP and the food companies that source from them to produce and distribute a variety of high-quality foods that are nutrient-dense, sustainable, affordable and desirable. Companies that provide HYRAP inputs (such as solar-powered irrigation, improved seeds and fertilizers, organic soil nutrients, integrated pest management solutions, etc.) also need this funding to scale their operations.

As a guidechange in consumer demand. Engaging media campaigns and purchase incentives are needed to encourage consumers to purchase HYRAP-compliant food, thereby stimulating demand and driving sustainable change in priority value chains. These efforts can be supported by a variety of actors, including food companies, industry organizations and governments.

The transition to HYRAP means moving towards improved productivity for smallholder farmers in Africa, while addressing environmental sustainability needs. Adopting HYRAP is not an option – it is a necessity – if we really want to fight climate change. The continent must be more self-sufficient and work not only for food security, but also for food abundance. We must ensure the adoption of practices that will provide sufficient, sustainable and nutritious food for Africa today, and for a future where the continent is the world’s leading food exporter.

The authors would like to thank Chris Mitchell and Biruh Demilew for their significant contributions to this piece.

[1] Farmers Weekly South Africa, don’t switch to farming? Restore degraded soil!, accessed 07/05/2022

[2], Better Results with Legumes in Rotation Maize with Maize, accessed 07 05 2022

[3], ‘Grand African Savannah Green Up’: Major $85m project announced to scale up agroforestry in Africa, accessed 07.05.2022

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