A brown revolution for Africa

Is boosting soils sustainably – through legumes, intercropping, agroforestry, cover crops, mulching and other soil improving techniques – the solution to meeting Africa’s food production needs?

Asia had the green revolution in the late 20th century. The development of improved seed varieties together with the expansion of irrigation infrastructure, the modernization of management techniques and the distribution of pesticides and fertilizer to farmers is credited with dramatically boosting crop yields.

Now philanthropist Howard G Buffet is calling for a Brown revolution in Africa, saying aid agencies must devote their attention to soil conditions across the continent.

The Hungry Continent: African Agriculture and Food Insecurity is a report by the Howard G Buffet Foundation which calls for “a bold new course of action that avoids magic bullet solutions, instead prioritizing innovative biologically-based agricultural systems that work for Africa’s resource-constrained smallholder farmers”.

The proposed Brown Revolution would focus on regenerating and using soil in a sustainable manner by planting legumes, intercropping and employing agroforestry, cover crops, no-till, basin planting and mulching. Buffet believes this is what will enhance African food security and lift the continent out of poverty.

“A Green Revolution really won’t work for the majority of Africa farmers,” said Buffett in his keynote address to the World Food Prize symposium. “We need a Brown Revolution. We need to change the debate about how to help African farmers.”

The publication has four main recommendations.

  1. There is no one single solution. Sustainable agricultural intensification that maximizes soil quality and crop productivity has to be achieved through flexible approaches that are tailored to meet specific circumstances. And in some cases it will be necessary to supplement low soil nutrients with mineral fertilizers in order to maximize yields.
  2. Conservation Agriculture, which involves minimal or zero tillage, year-round organic-matter soil cover and diversified crop rotations, is fundamental to achieving a Brown Revolution.

3.       Smallholder farmers must be involved in the process, especially women.

4.       While momentum is gaining among organizations advocating for more sustainable approaches to agriculture, there is a whole lot more to be done.

Read more about the report

Photo: Steve Mann / World Agroforestry Centre

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Kate Langford

Kate Langford

Kate Langford is a consultant writer with close to 20 years’ experience in communicating natural resource, environmental and land management issues for various government and non-government organizations. She previously worked as Communications Specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre in Kenya and has worked in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Australia. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Scientific Communication.

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