Achieving a sustainable future for African farming
Sustainable rural development can only be accomplished by empowering local people to participate in the development of new techniques themselves. In understanding the importance of irrigation for smallholder farmers, the EU-funded EAU4FOOD project has integrated locals within the innovation process.
“The uptake of research results is lacking in many parts of the world,” explains project coordinator Jochen Froebrich from Wageningen University and Research Centre, the Netherlands. “This is in particular severe when you consider that innovation in irrigation could improve agricultural productivity and might ensure a brighter future for farmers.”
This is why the EAU4FOOD project has involved all relevant stakeholders in the design, test and dissemination of new and effective soil and water management strategies. This, says Froebrich, will allow African farmers to increase food production while maximising soil fertility, and at the same time minimise pollution of fresh water reserves.
Making a difference on the ground
Since it began in July 2011, EAU4FOOD has focused on the needs of smallholder farmers. Study sites were purposely selected to represent Southern Africa (Mozambique and South-Africa), Northern Africa (Tunisia), West Africa (Mali) and East Africa (Ethiopia), to provide a baseline of usable data. From this, EAU4FOOD has been able to develop guidelines for achieving irrigated agriculture under a variety of water scarcity conditions.
“In South Africa, researchers have expounded different strategies to increase the yields for tomatoes at two cooperative farms, and have gradually introduced improved practices every season,” explains Froebrich. “Further works have been done to understand the regional limitations in water availability. But most importantly, tomatoes from the experiments have already been sold, and new ways to improve market access established.”
In Ethiopia, several innovations have been tested to tackle crop pests and improve soil fertility. For example, the project has evaluated the response of onion and garlic to nitrogen, phosphorus and zinc additions from manure, with farmers providing feedback. Here the success of the project triggered additional governmental support to tackle the maintenance of irrigation infrastructure. In Mozambique, management strategies to address issues of salinity, resilience to flood damage and the use of compost for soil fertility management have been investigated.
At the Mali site, where rice is the most important crop, the challenge has been to mitigate declining soil fertility and increase access to markets. Farmers have reorganised the maintenance of irrigation canals and improved water management practices. In Tunisia, the project has focused on the issue of soil degradation in cereal production as well as on adapted crop rotations.
The benefits of inclusion
Through addressing these local concerns, EAU4FOOD – scheduled for completion in June 2015 – aims to help solve some of the enormous challenges African agriculture faces. Innovation and inclusion have been central to the project’s approach, and EAU4FOOD has proposed what is called the ‘Green Wheel Approach’ to involve all stakeholders, including farmers, water managers, retailers, policy makers and NGOs.
“We have gained experience of how inclusion can make the difference,” says Froebrich. “We have developed innovations together with local farming communities, and involved them in a process to come up with new practices and new ideas. The next step must be to involve different stakeholder communities in participatory regional planning, and to define priorities for developing land and water resources.”
EAU4Food is expected to have a significant positive impact on agricultural production at farm level for many years to come, and on wider policy processes at national and trans-national levels.