Portraits of Sustainable Agriculture Projects and Initiatives in Africa

The following is part of the “47 Portraits of Sustainable Agriculture Projects and Initiatives” originally published by Centre for Environment and Society of University of Essex, UK. You can click here to read the full article which includes portraits from Asia and Latin America. Below is the “Portrait of Sustainable Agriculture Projects and Initiatives in Africa”.

1. Benin: Mucuna (velvetbean) cover cropping

This is an example of the introduction of a simple regenerative component into farm systems combined with increasing farmers’ capacity for local-adaptation of the technology. The spread of mucuna (Mucuna pruriens) for suppression of the aggressive weed imperata (Imperata cylindrica) has occurred because of land scarcity, decline in soil fertility, lack of fertilizer, and weed encroachment. Soils on the plateaux of southern Benin and Togo are nearing exhaustion. Fertilizer use is low among the large class of smallholder farmers. But even if fertilizers were available, the benefit from their use is declining because of a degrading soil resource base. Another consequence of the reduced fallow periods is encroachment of imperata, an aggressive weed that is very difficult to eradicate by hand. Researchers with the Recherche Appliquee en Milieu Reel project introduced mucuna cover cropping to alleviate the constraint of low nutrient supply to maize, the staple crop.

The government extension services (Centre d’Action Regional pour le Developpement Rural – CARDER) became interested in this success and started testing the system. In 1990, the CARDER for Mono Province tested the system in 12 villages with 180 farmers. They expanded to other southern provinces in 1991 and the number of farmers testing mucuna grew to approximately 500. Large NGOs became involved and some 14,000 farmers now growing mucuna throughout Benin.

Farmers who adopted mucuna cover cropping benefited from higher yields of maize with less labour input for weeding: maize following mucuna yields 3-4 t/ha without application of nitrogen fertilizer (similar to yields normally obtained with recommended levels of fertilization at 130 kg N/ha); whilst yields on plots previously planted with maize and cowpea was 1.3 t/ha. Mucuna as an intercrop or as a sole crop provides more than 100 kg N/ha to the following maize.

The benefit:cost analysis over a period of 8 years indicated a ratio of 1.24 when mucuna was included in the system, and 0.62 for the system without mucuna. The ratio was as high as 3.56 if mucuna seeds were sold. However, yearly analysis of the benefit: cost ratio indicated a declining trend over time for all systems suggesting that addition of external inputs (probably P and K fertilizer) are required in order to achieve full sustainability. Adoption of mucuna throughout the Mono Province would result in savings of about 6.5 million kg of nitrogen or about US $1.85 million/year.

Source: Bob Carsky, Victor Manyong

2. Burkina Faso: Soil and Water Conservation


Abandoned and degraded lands in dryland Burkina Faso have been improved with the adoption of tassas and zaï: 20-30 cm holes dug in soils that have been sealed by a thin surface layer hardened by wind and water action. The holes are filled with manure, which improve organic matter, promotes termite activity, and enhances infiltration. When it rains, the holes fill with water and millet or sorghum is planted. Tassas are normally used in conjunction with stone bunds.

In Burkina Faso, some 100,000 hectares have been restored – each producing some 700-1000 kg of cereal per year. Yields of millet without tassas, demi-lunes and contour stone bunds are 150-300 kg/ha; they rise to 400 kg with manure in a poor rainfall year, and 700-1000 kg/ha in a good rain year. Reij (1996) indicates that the average family in Burkina Faso using these technologies have shifted from being in annual cereal deficit amounting to 644 kg (equivalent to 6.5 months of food shortage) to producing a surplus of 153 kg per year. Tassas are best suited to landholdings where family labour is available, or where farm hands can be hired. The technique has spawned a network of young day labourers who have mastered this technique and, rather than migrating, they go from village to village to satisfy farmers’ growing demands.

Source: Alberta Mascaretti, Chris Reij

3. Ethiopia: Cheha Integrated Rural Development Project


This is an example of an integrated and relatively small-scale project making a substantial impact on regional food security. It has been working in south-west Ethiopia since the drought of 1984, and has introduced of new varieties of crops (vegetables) and trees (fruit and forest), promoted organic manures for soil fertility and botanicals for pest control, and introduced veterinary services. Some 12,500 farm households have adopted sustainable agriculture on about 5000 ha, resulting in a 70% improvement of overall nutrition levels within the project area, along with a 60% increase in crop yields. Some farmers have begun to produce excess crops which they sell in local markets, earning much needed income for their families. Thus an area once reliant entirely on emergency food aid has now become able to feed itself and have enough left over to contribute to surplus. The real promise of the programme, however, lies in the fact that farmers are replicating activities on their own initiative (including those outside the project area), where once they had to be encouraged to participate through food for work payments.

Source: Food for the Hungry International

4. Kenya: Association for Better Land Husbandry


The ABLH is supported by the UK Department for International Development and promotes business development through low cost methods of conservation-based farming that reduce poverty, improve rural people’s livelihoods and boost rural economies. It works on the premise that systems of sustainable and productive land use can be developed largely with the existing skills, knowledge and social organisation of rural people. It facilitates the formation of self-help groups of farmers, promotes sustainable agriculture technologies to these groups, helps them to market the outputs, and helping them to find ways to process and pack produce so as to retain greater added-value. It is engaged in business development, supporting community factories, and developing certification schemes and farmers’ own brands to give produce better returns in local and national markets.

The approach to sustainable agriculture is called `near nil investment’. The basic principle is that poor rural families do not have the financial resources to invest in farm improvements. What they need are ways to boost productivity and income by making the best use of available human and natural resources. The technologies proven to work are concerned with the regeneration and recycling or organic matter for soil management, and the use of natural pesticides such as neem. The aim is to find ways to maximise returns from these technologies, and then `top-up’ with externally-sourced fertilizers and pesticides where necessary and safe. Other low-investment resource-conserving technologies and practices are also made available to farmers, including beekeeping and agro-forestry. Most activities are currently focused on homegardens, though progress is also being made with field crops such as soya and sunflower.

Double dug beds combined with composting, green and animal manures improve the soil. A considerable investment in labour is required, but the better water holding capacity and higher organic matter means that these beds are more productive, more diverse and are able to sustain vegetable growth long into the dry season. Once this investment is made, little more has to be done for the next 4 to 6 seasons (2-3 years). Many vegetable and fruit crops are cultivated, including sukumawiki and other kales, onions, tomatoes, cabbage, passion fruit, pigeon peas, spinach, peppers, green beans and soya.

Self-help groups have found that their family food security has improved substantially since adopting conservation farming. Before, they had to use cash when they were short of food in the dry season to pay for maize and vegetables. They had to sell their labour, rely on remittances from family members working elsewhere in the country, or sell cash crops. They would have to do this at a time when food prices were high and labour and cash crop prices low. Many also relied on collecting wild foods from forests. But now, families have found that by working more on their own farms rather than selling labour to others, they are getting greater returns. They have found that investment on their own farms in natural capital pays better returns in food production. Casual hiring out of labour has virtually disappeared among SHG members. Children have been beneficiaries, as their health has improved through increased vegetable consumption and longer periods of available food. According to one review of 26 communities in eight Districts, 75% of households are now free from hunger during the year, and the proportion of households buying vegetables has fallen from 85% to 11%.

Source: Jim Cheatle, Jules Pretty; Pretty, 1997, 2000

5. Kenya: Community mobilisation against desertification (C-MAD) programme


The C-MAD programme works in a `low-potential’ part of South Nyanza, western Kenya. The programme area has a single rainfall season, and the land is badly degraded due to overgrazing and deforestation. The project began as a straightforward tree-planting effort, expanded to incorporate soil conservation, soil fertility and organic farming methods, and now focuses on whole farm improvements. The social processes incorporate participatory learning methods, farmer-based research groups, strengthening community and village groups, and collaboration with government and non-government research and extension agencies.

It works with about 500 farmers in some 1000 hectares, who have seen maize yields improve from about 2 to 4 t/ha. Income has also increased for many farmers following the cultivation of fruit (citrus, orange, mango, pineapple). The project reports increased local employment through growth in demand for on-farm labour. The cultivation of vegetables in home gardens has further improved domestic food security. The project also reports reduced child mortality and improved health and nutritional status.

Source: Peter Omondi, C-MAD

6. Kenya: Vutu-sukumu (Push-pull) pest management in smallholder systems


The work of ICIPE is explicitly focused on designing low-cost integrated pest management technology. It works closely with farmers to test and adapt technologies. It is also producing unexpected synergistic effects through manipulation of agricultural systems and the paradigms that define them. ICIPE approaches sustainable plant pest management on four major fronts:

biological control, using one organism to control another;

botanical agents, natural pest control compounds that are derived from plants;

habitat management, manipulating the cultivated and natural environment to preserve the pest-natural enemy balance and richness of species;

pest-tolerant varieties of major food crops that deter insect damage.

One activity is investigating novel habitat management approaches to suppress cereal stem borer and Striga populations in maize and sorghum. This project is developing novel ‘push-pull’ strategies to repel stem borers from the cereal crop and attract them to intercrop or barrier forage grasses. It has found extra-ordinary multi-functionality in a range of fodder grasses and legumes in cereal systems.

The strategy involves trapping pests on highly susceptible trap plants (pull) and driving them away from the crop using a repellent intercrop (push):

The forage grasses, Pennisetum purpureum (Napier grass) and Sorghum vulgare sudanense (Sudan grass), attract greater oviposition by stem borers than cultivated maize.

Non-host forage plants, Melinis minutiflora (molasses grass) and Desmodium uncinatum (silver leaf) repel female stalk borers (Chilo spp).

Intercropping with molasses grass (Melinis minutiflora) increases parasitism, particularly by the larval parasitoid, Cotesia sesamiae, and the pupal parasitoid Dentichasmis busseolae. Melinis contains several physiologically active compounds. Two of these inhibit oviposition (egg laying) in Chilo, even at low concentrations.

Molasses grass also emits a chemical, (E)-4,8-dimethyl-1,3,7-nonatriene, which summons the borers’ natural enemies.

Napier grass also has its own defence mechanism against crop borers: when the larvae enter the stem, the plant produces a gum-like substance kills the pest.

Sudan grass also increases the efficiency of the natural enemies (the parasitism rate on larvae of the spotted stemborer, Chilo partellus more than tripled, from 4.8% to 18.9% when the grass was planted around maize in a field and from 0.5% to 6.2% on Busseola fusca, another important pest).

ICIPE has found that intercropping maize with the fodder legumes Desmodium uncinatum (silver leaf) and D. intortum (green leaf) reduced infestation of parasitic weed, Striga hermonthica by a factor of 40 compared to maize monocrop. Reduction in Striga infestation by intercropping maize with the two species of Desmodium was significantly more than intercropping maize with soybean, sun hemp and cowpea.

Researchers from ICIPE and IACR-Rothamsted have found that such ‘push-pull’, using the attractive plants as trap crops and repellent plants as intercrops, reduces stem borer attack and increases levels of parasitism of borers on protected maize, resulting in a significant increase in yield. Farmer participatory trials in 1997 and 1998 have shown significant yield increases in maize. The aim is now to develop a maize-based cropping system that will reduce yield losses due to both stem borer and Striga and at the same time improve soil fertility due to nitrogen-fixing action of Desmodium. Such a redesigned and diverse system has many of the characteristics of `traditional’ farms in Kenya.

Further ICIPE research is showing the effectiveness of neem to control weevils in bananas, diamondback moth in brassicas, and fruitborers in tomatoes; is developing resistant cultivars based on traditional germplasm; is showing the value of sterile male release for fruit fly control; and is demonstrating control of the stemborer, Chilo partellus, through identification of a natural enemy from Pakistan, the parasitic wasp Cotesia flavipes (Chilo was accidentally introduced from Asia in the 1930s, and has no co-evolved local natural enemies), which has now been released in Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia and Somalia.

Sources: Hans Herren, John Pickett, ICIPE annual reports; Pickett, 1999; Khan et al, 2000

7. Kenya: Ministry of Agriculture soil and water conservation


Kenya has a long history of state intervention in both soil and water conservation and land management. Early approaches focused on providing cash payments to encourage farmers to construct the labour-intensive measures such as cut-off drains and artificial waterways. But by the end of the 1980s, it had become clear that the conventional approach to soil and water conservation was unable to meet the prevailing environmental challenge.

The Government of Kenya recognised that the only way to achieve widespread conservation coverage was to mobilise people to embrace soil and water conserving practices on their own terms. All financial subsidies were stopped, and resources allocated instead to participatory processes, extension, training, tools and farmer trips. It adopted in 1989 the Catchment (or Area of Concentration) Approach. This is seen as a way of concentrating resources and efforts within a specified catchment (typically 200-500 hectares) for a limited period of time (generally one year), during which all farms are laid out and conserved with full community participation. Small adjustments and maintenance would then carried out by the community members themselves with the support of local extension agents.

Participatory methods imply shifts of initiative, responsibility and action to rural people themselves. Interdisciplinary teams drawn from various government departments work for about a week in the catchment. These teams often include officers from MALDM, as well as those from other departments and ministries, including Education, Environment, Fisheries, Forestry, Public Works, Water Development, and Health. They sometimes include staff of local and international NGOs who are actively working in the catchment. Following the Rapid Catchment Analysis phase, a Catchment Conservation Committee of farmers is elected as the institution responsible for co-ordinating local activities. A Catchment Report is prepared, which serves as a baseline document for planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and for co-ordinated action by extension professionals based at Divisional and District level.

The Catchment Approach brings significant benefits over the individual farmer approach. The number of farms fully conserved each year in Kenya with various SWC measures has risen with the Catchment Approach from 59,450 (with doubts about sustainability) in 1988 to some 100,000 in the mid-1990s.

The process of implementation of the Catchment Approach itself has varied according to the human resources available and differing interpretations of the degree of participation necessary to mobilize the catchment community (Pretty et al, 1995). The impacts vary according to the quality of the interaction between extension staff and local people. When participation in planning and implementation is interactive, the impacts are substantially greater than when participation is simply consultative.

In an interactively planned catchment, an interdepartmental participatory rural appraisal is conducted to launch the catchment, which includes a baraza for presenting back findings and developing joint plans. The catchment committee is freely elected, and includes both men and women. After the catchment has been completed, the committees tend to remain active and committed to maintenance and replication. In conventionally planned catchments, the baraza is held mainly for publicity purposes, the catchment committees are more frequently selected by local leaders, and women rarely participate. The committees tend to become inactive soon after intensive contact with extension staff ends.

Sources: J K Kiara, Jules Pretty pers. observation, MoA/MoALDM annual reports 1989-1999; Pretty et al, 1995

8. Kenya: Mumias Education for Empowerment Project


The MEFE project works with some 2070 households in Kakamega, and area of western Kenya characterised by high rates of rural malnutrition, infant mortality and non-literacy. Severe food insecurity affected 1 in 4 people before the project, with many households only food secure for 1-3 months per year.

The project uses a structured learning process (REFLECT) to encourage all groups to analyse critically their own environment and to seek new solutions based on locally-available resources. The project uses a range of integrated pest management methods together with legumes, cover crops and green manures for soil fertility improvement. Raised beds have been incorporated on farms to increase vegetable production. As a result, beans and groundnut yields have doubled from 300 to 600 kg/ha. The project reports that the food security period has improved to 3-6 months for a typical household. The increased consumption of protein particularly benefits child health.

Source: Francisca Mate, James Atema

9. Kenya: Adaptive research programme, Environmental Action Team (EAT)


The EAT is a small on-farm research project based in Kitale in western Kenya, working with 130 farmers on about 80 hectares. In this area of Trans-Nzoia, food insecurity is widespread amongst small-holders. Farmers typically plant whole 0.5-1 hectare farms with maize, usually intercropped with beans. They use late maturing hybrids, which remain in the ground for 8-9 months. But due to low soil fertility, and farmers’ inability to purchase fertilizers, yields are only 650-1750 kg/ha. The yields of the main source of household protein, beans, are also very low, mainly die to pests and diseases (especially root rot and bean fly) and low soil fertility. This leads to protein malnutrition amongst poorest households.

EAT seeks to address these problems through participatory research and training. Farmers are trained in the principles and practice of biological agriculture, with a particular focus on soil health. New technologies are tested on farm, adapted, and then spread by farmers to neighbours if they work. The project helps farmers form groups –mostly it is women who come together first, and men who are attracted once the dramatic changes in productivity have been achieved.

A variety of technologies and practices have been adopted to improve household food production. These include: i) legumes and green manures – eg relay cropping of lablab into maize after 120-140 days – the legume takes over the land during the dry season, and the legume and maize residues are incorporated into the soil after harvest; and ii) composts and farmyard manure, with or without diammonium phosphate fertilizers, Tithonia and Sesbania. As a result, maize yields have improved to 3300-5500 kg/ha, and bean yields 4-8 fold. Further research is focusing on the trade-offs of harvesting legume grain and/or leaves compared with retaining all the green manure residues for the soil. EAT also promotes crop diversification with finger millet, soyabean, groundnut, pigeon pea and Irish potatoes, as well training farmers in intensive organic vegetable production in raised beds in home gardens.

Source: Beth Kirungu, Joseph Mureithi

10. Lesotho: Machobane Farming System


The Machobane Farming System is an example of a fundamentally redesigned system yielding multi-functional benefits. Lesotho is severely affected by erosion and land degradation. During the last twenty years, arable land fell 14 to 9% of the country’s total area, and crop yields are now about half the 1970s level. Dr. J.J.Machobane, a Mosotho agronomist, first conceived his system over 40 years ago, experimenting on his own land for 13 years before attempting to launch it amongst fellow farmers. Unlike most extension methods, the Machobane approach starts with the basic behavioural requirements for adopting its technical message:

self-reliance – farmers must be convinced that they can achieve food security without external assistance;

appreciation of the resource base – farmers must be ready to work hard, and be convinced that they can improve crop production by fully exploiting their resource base;

learning and teaching by doing – farmers must be trained on their own fields and farmer trainers must be ready to do work along with them;

spontaneous technology spreading – farmers learn from other farmers, and Machobane farmers have the duty to help their neighbours.

In Lesotho mountain areas, most crops are grown on terraced land, but poor soil structure, inadequate soil fertility management and erratic rainfall, mean that land productivity is low and variable. According to Machobane, these constraints can be overcome by rational exploitation of the resource base and minimising the need for purchased inputs. The technical elements include intercropping, localised placement of ash (from household waste) and manure, weeding, introduction of potato as a cash crop, preservation of natural enemies, row-rotations, and legumes with cereals.

Farmers adopting the MFS indicate three advantages of the system: (i) higher land productivity (0.4 ha per family needed for food security compared with the more normal 1.2 ha); (ii) large cash income obtained by planting potato; and (iii) better resistance to drought: their fields are green compared to non-Machobane fields during drought. In addition, MFS will substantially reduce farm income fluctuations through the combination of lowering yield fluctuations of individual crops, spreading risk of fluctuations in yields and prices by planting a larger range of crops and decreased reliance on imported inputs (fertilizers and pesticides). Some 2000 farmers are now practising this system.

Source: Alberta Mascaretti

11. Madagascar: System of rice intensification (SRI)


The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) was first developed in Madagascar by Fr. Henri de Laudanié in the 1980s, has been promoted since 1990 by the Association Tefy Saina, and evaluated by the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development. The system has improved rice yields from some 2 t/ha to 5, 10 or even 15 t/ha on farmers’ fields. This has been achieved without having to use purchased inputs of pesticides or fertilizers. The SRI is centred on making best use of the existing genetic potential of rice by breaking many of the conventional `rules’ of management:

Rice seedlings are usually transplanted at about 30 days (sometimes as late as 40-50). In the SRI, seedlings are transplanted at 8-12 days. This increases tillering – with SRI plants typically having 50-80 tillers compared with 5-20 for conventional ones.

Rice seedlings are usually planted close together to minimise weed infestation. But in the SRI, they are planted at least 25 cm apart in a grid pattern rather than rows. This facilitates mechanical weeding, as well as reducing seed use from 100 kg/ha to about 7 kg/ha. Wider spaced plants develop a different architecture, with more room for roots and tillers. Better root systems means reduced lodging.

Most scientists and farmers believe that rice, as an aquatic plant, grows best in standing water. In the SRI, however, paddies are kept unflooded during the period of vegetative growth. Water is only applied to keep the soil moist, which is allowed to dry out for periofds of 3-6 days. Only after flowering are paddies flooded, which are then drained 25 days before harvest (as for conventional rice). Such management encourages more root growth.

Flooding is the conventional approach to weed control. With SRI, farmers must weed up to four times – mechanically or by hand. Farmers who do not weed still get respectable yield increases of 2-3 fold; but those that weed get increases of 4-6 fold.

SRI farmers use compost rather than inorganic fertilizers

The improvement in rice yields with SRI have been so extraordinary that, until lately, they have been simply ignored by scientists. SRI challenges so many of the basic principles of irrigated rice cultivation, and so many professionals have been entirely sceptical. But it is the number of farmers adopting SRI that is proof of its effectiveness and efficiency.

It is estimated that some 20,000 farmers have now adopted the full SRI in Madagascar (Tefy Saina estimates that 50-100,000 farmers are now experimenting with elements of the system). Cornell have helped research institutions in China, Indonesia, Philippines, Cambodia, Nepal, Cote d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh locally to test SRI. In all cases, rice yields increased several fold. In China, for example, yields of 9-10.5 t/ha were achieved in the first year (compared with a national average of 6t/ha).

Sources: Norman Uphoff; Uphoff, 2000a, b

12. Malawi: small scale aquaculture


The International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM) works to integrate pond fish culture into low input farm systems in Malawi. The programme uses a participatory process for farmers and scientists jointly to map resource flows on farms, and then identify the potential for adjustments that would bring synergistic effects. It has worked with some 2000 individual farmers on both vegetable improvements in home gardens and fish-pond aquaculture. This integrated agriculture-aquaculture component of farmers often comprises only 500 m2 within an average farm size of 1.5 hectares. Yet intensification of just this core component has led to significant improvements in food security – vegetable yields have grown to 2700 to 4000 kg/ha, and fish ponds produce the equivalent of 1500 kg/ha of fish – a new source of food for households. These integrated farms also produce six times more cash than conventional farms – with the vegetable-fish element contributing up to 70% of annual cash income.

ICLARM has documented the steady improvement of productivity in these systems amongst collaborating farmers – with pond productivity increasing steadily from 800 to 1500 kg/ha. Amongst those farmers trained only through the conventional Training and Visit system in southern Malawi, yields by contrast fall steadily, as the over-designed systems unravelled as farmers lost control. An asset-building approach, building both on natural capital on the farm and farmers own human capital (skills and knowledge) allows for continuous readjustments over time.

Source: Randall Brummet, Daniel Jama; Brummet, 2000

13. Malawi: Agroforestry Extension project (MAFE)


This participatory extension project work with some 20,000 farmers on 4200 hectares to encourage the adoption of various agroforestry practices within farms. These include i) undersowing of Tephrosia vogelii, pigeon pea and Sesbania sesban in maize for soil fertility improvement; ii) dispersed tree interplanting (eg Faidherbia, Acacia polycantha. A. galpinii); and iii) soil and water conservation practices, especially contour grass hedges.

The project uses participatory approaches to bring a wide range of government and non-government organisations together with farmers to ensure that these technologies are well-adapted to local conditions. Farmers are formed into farmer associations, which can then draw down on these external bodies for specific services. The project has trained farmer trainees, who pass on their expertise to colleagues. As a result of these social process and new technologies, maize yields have improved from 700 kg/ha to 1500-2000 kg/ha. Farmers have become less dependent on fertilizers (many of which are too expensive for smallholders), and the project reports more households becoming both food and woodfuel secure. Some 6.98 million trees were planted in 1999 by 1155,913 households, and the project expects to see reduced pressure on natural forests as these mature.

Source: Zwide Jere, MAFE project

14. Niger: Soil and water conservation


The IFAD-funded soil and water conservation in Illéla district is an example of a key sustainable agriculture technology having substantial multi-functional benefits whilst improving formerly degraded or abandoned lands. Some 5800 ha of abandoned and degraded lands on the farms of some 6000 households in 77 villages have been improved with the adoption of tassas (also known as zaï in Burkina Faso). Large-scale erosion control measures were not successful in the region.

Tassas are 20-30 cm holes dug in soils that have been sealed by a thin surface layer hardened by wind and water action. Since this crust prevents infiltration by water, these areas are usually abandoned, devoid of vegetation, scattered with outcroppings of iron crust, and are prime sites for surface erosion. The holes are filled with manure, since soils in this region are normally lacking in organic matter. This also helps to promote termite activity during the dry season, so further enhancing infiltration. When it rains, the holes fill with water and farmers then plant millet or sorghum. Tassas are normally used in conjunction with stone bunds, taking advantage of the stones that farmers remove from fields for planting. These methods of soil and water conservation were learned by farmers of Illéla on a visit to Yatenga in Burkina Faso where, on the central plateau alone, some 100,000 hectares have been restored – each now producing some 700-1000 kg of cereal per year. According to Hassan (1996), yields of millet without tassas, demi-lunes and contour stone bunds are of the order of 150-300 kg/ha. They rise to 400 kg with manure in a poor rainfall year, and 700-1000 kg/ha in a good rain year. Addition of some fertilizer increases yields again – to 650 kg/ha in poor years and 1400-1500 kg/ha in good ones.

This soil-development activity has allowed the region to attain average millet yields of 480 kg/ha, reaching levels of up to 700 kg/ha if chemical fertilizer is added (an as-yet uncommon practice). Comparatively, fields of similar quality levels produced only 130 kg/ha According to IFAD, food availability in participating households rose between 20% and 40%, depending on local rainfall conditions. Reij (1996) indicates that the average family in Burkina Faso and Niger using these sustainable agriculture technologies have shifted from being in annual cereal deficit amounting to 644 kg (equivalent to 6.5 months of food shortage) to producing a surplus of 153 kg per year.

Tassas are best suited to landholdings where family labour is available, or where farm hands can be hired. The technique has spawned a network of young day labourers who have mastered this technique and, rather than migrating, they go from village to village to satisfy farmers’ growing demands. There are cases of land being bought back by farmers who recognized early on the profit that can be earned from this land.

Three key factors have contributed to the development and dissemination of this technology in the farming community:

An action-research approach that combines flexibility, openness to farmer initiatives, a forward-looking attitude and willingness to negotiate;

A technology that combines the core benefits of innovation: immediate results, simplicity, ability to be integrated into existing cropping systems, and replicability

A technological package that can adjust to the changing local context.

Sources: Alberta Mascaretti, FAO; Reij, 1996; Hassan, 1996

15. Senegal: Rodale Regenerative Agriculture Research Center


In Sahelian countries, the major constraints to food production are related to soils, most of which are sandy and low in organic matter. Where they are heavier and better in quality, they are subject to intensive use and so exposed to erosion by water and wind. In Senegal, soil erosion and degradation threaten large areas of agricultural land. Since 1987, the Rodale Institute Regenerative Agriculture Research Center has worked closely with farmers associations and government researchers to improve the quality of soils in Senegal by using agroecological methods.

Regenerative agriculture in the peanut basin has resulted in positive biophysical, environmental, social and economic benefits. The primary cropping system of the region is a millet-groundnut rotation. Fields are cleared by burning, and then cultivated with shallow tillage using animals. But fallow periods have decreased dramatically, and the use of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides is rare amongst smallholders, owing to high prices. It has also been well-established that inorganic fertilizers do not return expected yields unless there is concurrent improvements in organic matter – nutrients are washed away by the first rains, or are taken up by soil microbes and weeds. Soils low in organic matter also do not retain moisture well.

The RARC works with about 2000 farmers in 59 groups to improve the soil quality, integrate stall-fed livestock into crop systems, add legumes and green manures, improve the use of manures and rock phosphate, incorporate water harvesting systems, and develop effective composting systems. The result has been a 75-195% improvement in millet yields – from 330 to 600-1000 kg/ha, and in groundnut yields from 340 to 600-900 kg/ha. Yields are also less variable year on year, with consequent improvements in household food security. As Amadou Diop has put it: “crop yields are ultimately uncoupled from annual rainfall amounts. Droughts, while having a negative effect on yields, do not result in total crop failure”.

16. Uganda: household livestock development


Heifer Project International introduced zero-grazing of dairy production to Uganda. This involves keeping good quality dairy cows in confinement and cut and carry feeding. The system includes production of forages, grasses and leguminous trees. Much of these are grown on bunds and intercropped with food or cash crops thus conserving soil and moisture. The system also results in greater food security and better family nutrition. Animals are a good source of income and food in the dry season and ruminants can use much to the crop and food processing by-products. The gathering of manure and compost from the zero-grazing unit, provides an ongoing source of organic fertiliser and provides for the rapid recycling of limited nutrients within the system. The strengthening of community groups which provide mutual support and training is another significant component.

Dairy heifers are provided as an in-kind loan. Farmers repay the loan by raising a female offspring which is then “passed on” to another farmer in the community. Thus the group has a capital resource which also for the benefit of the program to continue to spread. The zero-grazing system was introduced to Uganda by HPI in 1983, and has survived despite political and economic problems. It has since been adopted by numerous agencies, including the Ministry of Agriculture and International NGOs.

Over 5,000 families have benefited directly from significant increase in income and nutrition, resulting in dramatic improvements in housing and school attendance. Some 10,000 hectares of land have been improved or stabilised by the development of a sustainable small-holder dairy farming system. Over 50 community-based groups have been strengthened and these are an engine for rural development. The status of women has been enhanced as over half of the livestock owners are women, many of who are widows with large families.

Source: Carolee Black

17. Zimbabwe: Chivi Food Security Project


This ITDG project is located in southern Zimbabwe, which falls into Zimbabwe’s lowest categories of agricultural potential, and where drought occurs in three out of every five years. An approach which combined low-cost regenerative technologies with building farmers’ capacities to participate in research, extension and within group structures has meant that now farmers report that their yields have more than doubled (up 100%) since the project was initiated in 1991. The main technologies are water harvesting (tied ridges and infiltration pits) and the adoption of clay pipes and ferro-cement rings for subsurface irrigation of women’s vegetable plots. Some 35 women’s garden clubs for raising and selling vegetables are now effective and families have become food secure with the greater range of produce spread through the year. According to some community participants “food security is no longer a problem”.

The multi-functional benefits of the project include farmers have acquired new skills for food production; local institutions have been strengthened in tackling their own problems; transformative training has increased confidence among local people, particularly poorest groups; increased involvement of women in community decision-making; greater capacity amongst farmers to articulate their needs to service providers, and research and extension systems have become more responsive to farmers’ needs.

Source: Intermediate Technology Development Group


Sources: Amadou Diop; Diop, 2000

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3 Responses to Portraits of Sustainable Agriculture Projects and Initiatives in Africa

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  2. Andrew says:

    Interesting read. IMO, we should all do our part to keep our natural environment sustainable.

    Andrew of 1800PetMeds Blog

  3. I’m currently preparing to establish an sustainable agricultural organic fruit farm in Ethiopia, I have at least 500-600 seedlings/trees, and in financial difficulty, and I’m asking kindly for your assistance. I’m a British National, and now a resident of Ethiopia. My project is mainly about eliminating hunger and poverty, protecting the environment against climate change, desertification, degradation, deforestation, and preserving the unique ecosystem. I’m asking for referrals to other schemes that may suit me if I’m applying to the wrong people. Thanks
    George Maitland

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