Ecological Farming in Africa

Growing Food Sovereignty and Climate Resilience

Page - May 30, 2013
Agriculture is the backbone of Africa’s economy. About 70% of Africa’s population depends on it for their livelihoods. Despite this, food sovereignty remains a major problem for much of Africa.

In Africa, Greenpeace is campaigning to promote ecological farming, a model of agriculture that is good for people and the planet, providing healthy food grown with the environment — not against it.

30 May 2013 Self-help project to support Rusinga Island with help from ICIPE field station Mbita Point, Kenya

© Greenpeace / Jennifer Heslop


What is Greenpeace?

Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace. Greenpeace Africa was established in 2008.

Our vision is built on sustainable equity and food sovereignty in which safe and healthy food is grown to meet fundamental human needs, and where control over food and farming rests with local communities, rather than transnational corporations.

Food production using ecological farming ensures healthy farming and healthy food for today and tomorrow, by protecting soil, water and climate, promotes biodiversity, and does not contaminate the environment with chemical inputs or genetic engineering.

What is ecological farming?

There are many factors that contribute to poverty and hunger in Africa, including war, political instability, lack of infrastructure and poor economic conditions. As agriculture has a crucial role to play as a source of food and livelihood for the poorest people, it is important to highlight one particular practice that works to reduce poverty, increase livelihoods and environmental health.  This is ecological farming, and it builds on the traditional farming methods that are being practiced in Africa. Ecological farming works with biodiversity and inexpensive locally available resources, and evidence from Africa shows how this type of farming is helping to increase food availability and income in some of the poorest African regions,[1] while also promoting practices that are beneficial to the environment.

The Problem

Industrial farming presents one of the most urgent threats to the environment and food security facing the world today. It relies on inputs of fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and genetically engineered (GE) seeds. These expensive inputs result in debt and economic insecurity for farmers, especially smallholders. This debt-driven agriculture is a big contributor to global climate change. It destroys biodiversity, degrades soils, pollutes land, freshwater and coastlines, creating health risks from field to fork, and consolidates control over the food system amongst a handful of corporate giants.

Industrial agriculture is driven by profit-seeking corporations, like Yara and Monsanto, which sell farmers inputs. This model of agriculture assumes that their use will increase yields and will therefore provide farmers with sufficient income to pay off the debts incurred from buying inputs. However, just one poor harvest is likely to bankrupt the farmers.  In India, for example, the adoption of GE cotton has contributed to farmers incurring huge debts when harvests fail. Debt is a likely reason behind the suicides of thousands of farmers in India.

Increasing agricultural production in Africa may be both necessary and beneficial, but it must be done more judiciously than in the past by supporting sustainable practices that will not compromise the future of African farmers and their land.

"In a continent where almost 98% of the agriculture is rain-fed and dependent on natural conditions, climate change poses a huge threat to the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers. Agroecology builds the resilience to overcome the challenges of prolonged droughts, higher temperatures, and increasingly erratic rains. Synthetic fertilisers and nutrient-guzzling hybrid seeds will not provide the resilience or the required adaptation." –

Gertrude Kenyangi, Ugandan smallholder farmer, Support for Women in Agriculture and Environment (SWAGEN)

Impact on the environment

Agriculture contributes some 14% of all human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly from the production and use of synthetic fertilisers and from livestock. Industrial agriculture relies on monocultures that destroy biodiversity, making crops more susceptible to pest infestations and in turn increasing the need for toxic pesticides. The lack of diversity in a monoculture (at the plant level, farm level and at ecosystem level) makes them less resilient. This means the system is vulnerable to shocks like extreme weather events.

30 May 2013 The different levels of biodiversity on the farm include

Crop genetic diversity includes diversity that can be found among the different varieties of the same crop, as well as the genetic variation found within a single variety. Cropping diversity at the farm level arises from planting different crops at the same time (intercropping), from having trees and hedges on the farm (agroforestry) or diversity created over time (crop rotation) Farm diversity at the regional level occurs when there are diversified farms within a region.

Infertility of soils is already one of the factors responsible for low food production in Africa. The rush to industrialise agriculture will further exacerbate the infertility of already poor soils and water shortages will become more common. Synthetic fertilisers that replace locally available soil nutrients in manure and practices like polycropping and the use of legumes and cover crops, create a dependency on imported, fossil fuel intensive inputs which have to be bought. But making fertilizers cheaper and locally available to farmers will not resolve soil impoverishment. Soil impoverishment is a complex problem that needs an integrated approach to reach an effective, long-term solution that does not create more economic and environmental problems. Soil fertility replenishment is possible with an integrated approach that works with farmers and resources naturally available in Africa. For example poor growth of a crop may indicate a lack of water retention by the soil which can be improved by increasing the organic matter in soils by adding crop residues or manure, depending on what is locally available.

Impact on rural livelihoods

Reliance on external inputs will make farmers vulnerable to price rises. This means that money flows out of the local economy and into global agribusiness at both ends of the farming process. Reliance on monoculture crops increases vulnerability to fluctuations in the cost of agrochemicals and the commodities market if the crops are destined for foreign markets.

Corporate agribusiness continues to consolidate the supply of inputs, farm production and food distribution, thereby gaining increasing control over our food system. This in turn leads to farmers being paid less for their produce and consumers paying more for their food.

Industrial agribusiness is about feeding markets.  Ecoagriculture is about feeding people.

Africa – the new frontier for expansion of industrial food production

Over recent years, Africa has emerged as a new frontier for the expansion of industrial agriculture. It is now THE battleground for future agricultural models, exemplified by the frightening pace of land-grabbing taking place across sub-Saharan Africa to feed global commodity markets. Since global agribusiness first turned its attention to Africa less than a decade ago, smallholder farmers are being ousted from their land so that industrial agriculture interests can move in. Initiatives like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security & Nutrition and the World Economic Forum's Grow Africa seem to be promoting a model of industrial agriculture that benefits big corporate agribusiness, over the needs of smallholder producers and rural communities.

30 May 2013 Pesticide Use in Spain

A tractor spraying pesticides on a field in a vegetable farm. © Greenpeace / Ángel Garcia


Industrial Agriculture

Ecological Farming

Growing crops for the global oil and grain commodity markets. E.g. Palm oil, maize, soy.

Growing crops for local communities and animals, reducing costs of importing staple commodities

Growing monocultures

Growing polycultures. e.g. intercropping and agroforestry systems using agro-biodiversity

Uses synthetic fertilizers

Uses organic fertilizers. e.g. fertilizer trees, cover crops, legumes, manure.

Uses synthetic pesticides

Biodiversity to prevent and fight pest infestations. e.g. beneficial insects 

Relies on farmers taking loans to buy industrial inputs.

Farmers use locally available organic inputs and labour.

Vulnerable to pest infestations and extreme climate events.

Resilience through biodiversity and healthy soil structure to alleviate impacts like droughts and floods.

Provides farm jobs that are often temporary and seasonal.

Provides livelihoods

These initiatives are based on public-private partnerships and are jointly funded by Northern donor governments, private capital and philanthropic money, amongst which AGRA acts as a central catalyst. Although promoted as solutions to Africa’s food security challenges, these public private partnerships (PPP) are predominantly focused on boosting production of grains, oils and biofuels, much of which will be destined for export. It is an investment opportunity masked as a development solution.

"Africa needs a ‘uniquely African’ strategy for the sustainable intensification of its agriculture, capitalising on ecological processes and ensuring efficient use of scarce external inputs."

- Pablo Tittonell and Ken E. Giller, Farming Systems Ecology scientists, Wageningen University, The Netherlands

The argument goes that industrial agriculture to grow feedstock for the global commodity markets will reduce poverty and enable Africans to import food to meet their food security needs. But the food crisis of 2007-08 resulted in several food-exporting governments banning exports of grains to secure domestic demand, resulting in higher global food prices. This was aggravated by food speculation, made possible by global commodity markets. The priority for food production in Africa needs to be feeding Africans and not increasing the profits of global agribusiness and commodity traders.

The question is: Is it the paradigm of industrial agriculture to feed global commodity markets, or will it be the model of ecological farming for food sovereignty that prevails?

Why ecological farming?

The IAASTD report on Sub-Saharan Africa provides and refers to a growing body of evidence demonstrating that investing in agroecological approaches can be highly effective in boosting food security, production, incomes and resilience to climate change and empowering communities[1]. An analysis assessing 114 cases in Africa revealed that the conversion of farms to organic methods increased agricultural productivity by 116%. In Kenya, maize yields increased by 71% and bean yields by 158%. Moreover, increased diversity in food crops available to farmers resulted in more varied diets and thus improved nutrition. Also the natural capital of farms (soil fertility, levels of agrobiodiversity, etc.) increased over time after conversion.[1]

Our Goal

Our goal is to mainstream ecological farming in Africa by exposing agribusiness’ drive to increase profits at the cost of farmers’ livelihoods and food security.  Traditional farming that uses local organic inputs and farmer-saved seed is based on ecological farming but needs ecological intensification to feed Africa’s growing population. Our role will be to help up-scale and promote ecological farming solutions that are already being practiced successfully by African farmers. A modeling for large-scale organic conversion in sub-Saharan Africa suggests that agricultural yields would grow by 50 percent, thus increasing local access to food and reducing food imports[2].

The good news is that the trend to industrialise agriculture is not going unopposed. Greenpeace will be joining a large movement of farmers’ organisations, NGOs, researchers and progressive institutions across the continent which are fighting to keep African agriculture centred on the needs of smallholder producers, and local consumers, using sustainable and appropriate technologies and production methods based on agro-ecological principles.

[1]    Altieri, M. A., Funes-Monzote, F. R., Petersen, P. 2011. Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: contributions to food sovereignty. Agron. Sustain. Dev. DOI 10.1007/s13593-011-0065-6

[2] Halberg, N., Alroe, H.F., Knudsen, M.T. & Kristensen, E.S. 2007. Global Development of Organic Agriculture: Challenges and Prospects. CABI Publishing. Source: El-Hage Scialabba, N.,2007. Organic  Agriculture  and Food Security. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations