‘Don’t throw money at farmers’, and other lessons in sustainable multi-functional agriculture

African plum (Dacryodes edulis) for sale in a village market in Cameroon. The plum is one of the trees domesticated through the ICRAF project. Photo by Charlie Pye-Smith/ICRAF

African plum (Dacryodes edulis) for sale in a village market in Cameroon. The plum is one of the trees domesticated through a long-term ICRAF project. Photo by Charlie Pye-Smith/ICRAF

To overcome poverty, hunger and malnutrition as well as their close bedfellow environmental degradation, we would all do well to heed the dozen principles discussed in a new article by Roger B. Leakey. Instead of giving farmers cash handouts, for instance, we would empower them with skills and knowledge. And instead of telling them what to do, we would ask them what it was they needed.

The 12 principles are distilled from the operations of a long-term, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)-led project in Cameroon, West Africa. Initiated in 1998, the project revolves around training communities in agroforestry for the rehabilitation of degraded land, and participatory domestication and commercialization of fruits and nuts from indigenous trees. The project won the prestigious Equator prize in 2012.

Long-term engagement

In expounding the twelve principles, Leakey traces the failure of agriculture in many tropical and sub-tropical countries to a colonial history and inappropriate policies.

“There has been a tendency for leaders in developed countries to think that agricultural developments that have worked in the temperate zone must be applicable in the tropics; despite big differences in the climate, soils, ecology and socio-economic conditions,” he states.

The principles in Leakey’s paper will not suit those searching for a conventional solution; they involve long-term engagement with farmers to equip them with skills and knowledge that they themselves take can forward independently, beyond the project cycle. Researchers and NGOs act as mentors and supporters to farmers, enriching their indigenous knowledge with scientific and technical methods and know-how.

“Cash handouts to farmers can be downright detrimental to sustainability,” says Leakey. Instead, the available funds are better spent on trainings and putting up locally appropriate infrastructure. In other words, “Do not throw money at farmers, but provide skills and understanding (Principle 2).”

Principle 10—Rehabilitate degraded land and reverse social deprivation: Close the ‘Yield Gap,’—involves a 3-step approach to better land husbandry which allows farmers to bridge the difference between the potential yield of modern crop varieties and the yield that poor farmers typically produce in the field. The approach, detailed in Leakey’s 2012 book Living with the Trees of Life, consists of (i) Adopting agroforestry technologies to improve yields; (ii) Participatory domestication of indigenous trees that produce marketable products, and (iii) Promoting rural entrepreneurism and developing value-adding and processing technologies for the new tree crop products.

In summary, the 12 principles for the achievement of sustainable food security outlined in Leakey’s article are:

  1. Ask, do not tell
  2. Do not throw money at farmers, but provide skills and understanding
  3. Build on local culture, tradition and markets
  4. Use appropriate technology, encourage diversity and indigenous perennial species
  5. Encourage species and genetic diversity
  6. Encourage gender/age equity
  7. Encourage farmer-to-farmer dissemination
  8. Promote new business and employment opportunities
  9. Understand and solve underlying problems: The Big Picture
  10. Rehabilitate degraded land and reverse social deprivation: Close the ‘Yield Gap’
  11. Promote ‘Multi-functional Agriculture’ for environmental/social/economic sustainability and relief of hunger, malnutrition, poverty and climate change, and
  12. Encourage Integrated Rural Development.

Enabling factors

In addition to expounding on the practical application of the principles, Leakey delves into the structural enablers for success in implementing the strategy.

First is for researchers and development workers to appreciate the complex land tenure systems that exist in most developing countries; these are often a mix of community, individual, and state-controlled land rights.

Second, is to recognize the communal rights of local people to their traditional knowledge and local germplasm, and to ensure that they benefit from their use and are rewarded for sharing them for the wider good. The recipients of traditional knowledge and germplasm, be they research organizations or private companies, “should enter into formal Access and Benefit Sharing agreements, in which the rights of the holders of knowledge and genetic resources will be legally recognized,” says Leakey. Such legally binding agreements would ensure that benefits flow back to the farmers and communities.

Third, is to apply the ‘ideotype’ approach to tree domestication. With this approach, cultivars are developed that have the ideal combination of traits for a range of different markets – as diverse as food, cosmetics and perfumes, medicines, car manufacture, and wood fuel.

Fourth, is to decentralize tree domestication, in the interest of maintaining genetic diversity. When different communities spread out to domesticate trees using the ideotype approach, genetic diversity is preserved.

Leakey adds that gender equity and the involvement of young people in the all processes must be upheld and promoted.

The Big Picture

Furthermore, the ‘Big Picture’— the range of socio-economic and biophysical influences which can shape progress at any particular site— must be looked at and into by project partners. These include: access to markets, land tenure and local governance, and external factors such as natural disasters, conflict and war, and international policy and trade agreements that drive global economics.

The article gives valuable insights into the Cameroon project, initiated in the 1990s by ICRAF Senior Scientist and Regional Coordinator for West and Central Africa, Zac Tchoundjeu, Leakey (who at the time was ICRAF Director of Research) and colleagues within the Tree Diversity, Domestication and Delivery program. As a result of the project, today local NGOs manage five Rural Resource Centres (RRCs) involving over 450 communities. In addition to training in nursery management, entrepreneurism, microfinance, community organization and infrastructure development, the RRCs serve as hubs for the fabrication of low-tech tools and equipment for processing of tree and non-tree food products.

Community groups are benefitting from soil fertility, food, nutrition and income from the sale of tree products as well as artisanal fabrication of equipment such as drying mills. Significantly, young people in the participating communities say they can see a future for themselves if they remain in the village, rather than feeling that they have to migrate to towns and cities for a better life.

Multi-functional agriculture

Using the12 principles, the project is achieving what International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) terms “multi-functional agriculture.” This is agriculture that goes beyond producing food, to simultaneously promote the social, economic and environmental benefits of farming systems.

“What is needed now is to disseminate the 12-principles approach to millions of other poor people in Africa and other tropical countries,” says Leakey in conclusion.

Download Prooceedings of the FAO Workshop. ‘Twelve Principles for Better Food and More Food from Mature Perennial Agroecosystems’ by Roger B.B. Leakey is on Page 282.

Chapter is also available at: http://www.rogerleakey.com/publication/


Related links:

See photos of the ICRAF Cameroon project


Visit  Living with the Trees of Life on Facebook


Rural Resource Centres video

Public lecture on closing the yield gap


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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences (bels.org) and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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