More money and less risk for African eco-farmers

Rose Koech at her farm in Kembu, Kenya. She has a mixed farm with trees, crops, fodder species and vegetables. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF

Rose Koech at her farm in Kembu, Kenya. She has a mixed farm with trees, crops, fodder species and vegetables. Photo by Sherry Odeyo/ICRAF


A Greenpeace study in Malawi and Kenya has revealed that chemically-intensive farming hurts the bottom line of small-scale farmers; agroecological farming is more profitable.

Agroecology refers to a suite of sustainable farming practices that use few or no external chemical inputs. The approaches, often rooted in traditional farming techniques, include sustainable land management, water harvesting, agroforestry, biological control of pests and weeds, intercropping, organic farming, permaculture, and several others.

The 2014 Greenpeace research surveyed small farmers (with under 2-acres) in Kitale and Mbita in western Kenya and Salima in central Malawi, reviewing their incomes per acre of maize. The Kenyan smallholders practicing the ‘push-pull’ technology for stemborer control earned one and half times their chemical-using neighbours, an average of $343 extra. The farmers using Faidherbia albida ‘fertilizer trees’ in Malawi were making up to three times what their neighbours using chemicals were, per acre of maize—an extra $93. In Malawi, the economic benefits of using fertilizer trees held even when the agrochemicals were subsidized.

At a seminar at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)’s Nairobi headquarters on 27 April, Glen Tyler, the manager for Greenpeace Africa’s agriculture campaign, presented the highlights of the new study and plans for the future. He explained Greenpeace’s renewed focus on small-scale farmers in Africa:

“These are the farmers producing food; we need to support them,” said Tyler.

He said Greenpeace opposed the promotion of chemically intensive farming in Africa.

“There has been a flood of green-revolution-type rhetoric coming out of East Africa recently…A lot of foundations and people are pushing for more chemically intensive agriculture in East Africa as a way to feed the region. We are campaigning against that.”

The push-pull technology for stemborer control in maize was developed and has been promoted for over a decade by the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), Biovision, and partners. The farmer intercrops maize with desmodium (silverleaf, Desmodium uncinatum), a cover crop that repells (pushes) stemborers and suppresses the parasitic weed striga, and grows a border of napier grass (Pennisetum purpureum) around the maize, which attracts (‘pulls’) and traps the borers. The practice protects the maize from borers and striga, raising yields. Desmodium and napier, furthermore, are good fodder for livestock.

Maize growing under fertilizer tree. Photo: ICRAF

Maize growing under Faidherbia albida ‘fertilizer trees’. Photo: ICRAF

Agroforestry with nitrogen-fixing trees (fertiliser trees) in maize has been researched and developed for around two decades by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), ICRISAT and the NGO Total Landcare, working with partners in East and Southern Africa. Long-term studies have shown that maize interspersed with rows of nitrogen-fixing trees—popularly known as fertiliser trees—has higher, more stable yields than monoculture maize. Besides improving the soil’s health, the trees bring myriad other benefits, such as timber, fodder, shade, and fuelwood.

Tyler said chemical-based farming for smallholder farmers in Africa means indebtedness, which is made worse by fluctuations in prices of produce. The chemicals expose people and livestock to health risks, since small farmers are seldom able to buy protective gear or follow package instructions exactly as required.

The environment suffers too, with nutrient runoff from fertilisers and pesticide toxicity affecting soils and water bodies.

Agroecological practices, on the other hand, are environmentally benign and climate-smart, building households’ resilience to climate change and promoting on-farm biodiversity.

“These practices lower production costs and increase yields, thus boosting incomes for small scale farmers in resource-poor communities,” says the Greenpeace report on the study.

To successfully practice ecological farming, however, farmers need knowledge and support, typically from extension services. It also takes research to develop new innovative solutions.

“It’s so much easier to buy fertilizer and drop it off at a farm,” said Tyler.

The simplicity of sponsoring chemical inputs might explain why large chunks of African national budgets for agriculture are currently dedicated to purchasing chemical inputs for small farmers. Malawi, for instance, spent 43% of its agriculture budget on its Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), says the Greenpeace report.

To help governments and funders shift their investments towards ecological farming and away from chemically intensive farming for small-scale farmers, Greenpeace is developing guidelines and tools, which will be shared widely.

Tyler said Greenpeace is also looking to work with researchers and partners in further research to strengthen the case for ecological farming in Africa.

With this new campaign for environmentally sound agriculture, Greenpeace-Africa joins the growing number of global and local advocates in support of farming that works in harmony with nature, rather than in opposition to it.


Download the Greenpeace report and its summary

Download Greenpeace Guide for Funders: Financing Ecological Farming in Africa: A guide for International Donors

Related stories:

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

 Fertilizer tree options for farmers

Trees and food security in Africa; what’s the link?

Leakey book says ‘trees of life’ could nourish the planet, build wealth 

Publication [PDF] Farming Trees, Banishing Hunger: How an agroforestry programme is helping smallholders in Malawi to grow more food and improve their livelihoods

Background paper: Agroforestry for food and nutritional security in Africa

Related websites:'

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 ( 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

You may also like...