Success factors for land and water management in Africa

At present, large expanses of land in rural Africa are degraded as a result of over extraction of trees for timber, firewood and charcoal. The problem is exacerbated by poor crop and animal husbandry practices, such as growing crops in unsuitable ecological zones and on steep slopes, as well as unplanned grazing on Africa’s vast rangelands. Soils in degraded landscapes erode and lose their biodiversity and fertility, and the hydrologic functions of surrounding watersheds are diminished, leading to loss of water quantity and quality; land and water management, after all, are two sides of the same coin.

Immaculée Nyirahabimana is a farmer from Cyuve district-CIAT

Immaculée Nyirahabimana is a farmer from Cyuve district-CIAT. Photo by Stephanie Malyon / CIAT.

A side event convened by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) at the seventh Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW7) sought to share knowledge on how to better manage the continent’s water and land resources, as a means to support higher and more sustainable agricultural productivity and better livelihoods for people. The session contributed recommendations to the just-ended conference convened in Kigali by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, FARA, the apex continental organization responsible for coordinating and advocating for agricultural research-for-development.

Dennis Garrity, UN Drylands Ambassador and Senior Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), was the keynote speaker at the event on 14 June 2016. He urged putting people at the center of improved land and water management approaches and offered examples of successes on the continent, as well as bold new programs and opportunities for land restoration in Africa.


Keynote speaker Dennis Garrity. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Keynote speaker Dennis Garrity. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

One major success is what Garrity called “the biggest positive environmental transformation we know of in Africa”— a re-greening of previously degraded landscapes that has taken place in the Sahelian country of Niger during the past two decades.

“The successful restoration of more than 5 million hectares of land through farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) of trees,” said Garrity, “has astounded even the old hands of landscape management.”

In FMNR, farmers protect existing tree stumps on their land, which within a few years grow into full trees and shrubs to provide numerous goods and services for households and communities. With the trees on the land, an area’s hydrology gradually improves and even dried up riverbeds may start to flow again.

Garrity said FMNR is “going viral across the Sahel,” and is now being practiced by farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. In Malawi, too, “over a million farmers are practicing FMNR in their maize fields.”

Land restoration

Many new initiatives are seeking to step up land restoration on the continent, in order arrest the downward trends in ‘biomass productivity’ seen in Africa. FAO long-term maps show the most severe declines in this indicator of crop yields in Central and southern Africa.

The African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100) is one such initiative. Launched in 2015 by the African Union and hosted by NEPAD, AFR100 aspires to restore 100 million hectares of land in Africa by 2030. Over 17 countries have already made commitments to AFR100, with Ethiopia targeting 15 million hectares, Kenya 5.1 million, Uganda 2.5 and Rwanda 2 million hectares for restoration. AFR100 is aligned with global restoration initiatives such as the Bonn Challenge.

“AFR100 is a great opportunity for the WLE program to align with and provide knowledge and scaling up solutions for restoration in Africa,” said Garrity.

Water is the other essential factor for land productivity, and managing and conserving water resources is key to long-term food security, health and sanitation.

Water harvesting

Sprinkler irrigation-in Ghana. Photo by Nana Kofi-Acquah/IWMI

Sprinkler irrigation-in Ghana. Photo by Nana Kofi-Acquah/IWMI

The Southern and Eastern Africa Regional Network (SearNet) is developing a Billion-Dollar Business Plan for rainwater harvesting in farm ponds throughout Africa. The pond water is used to irrigate high-value crops and vegetables, which provides food for households and raises the incomes of farmers to catalyse development on many different fronts.

“In Kenya, thousands of farms are already doing it, and the basis is there for a massive expansion,” said Garrity.

Water and land management projects

Maimbo Malesu, Programme Coordinator-Water Management at ICRAF (L), and Emmanuel Rurema of PENTAIR. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Maimbo Malesu, Programme Coordinator-Water Management at ICRAF (L), and Emmanuel Rurema of PENTAIR. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Another large multi-country ICRAF partnership initiative on water and land management was showcased at the WLE event—the Drylands Development (DryDev) project, implemented by ICRAF with funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Through the project, farmers and communities are receiving direct development support on farm-level water and soil management, watershed restoration, and value chain and institutional development. DryDev is also working towards influencing reforms and investment decisions to support more rational land and water management.

The DryDev researchers at the AASW7 event, Maimbo Malesu (who is also the SearNet Coordinator), and officers Elsabijn Koelman and Alex Oduor, said DryDev’s experience in Sahelian and Horn of Africa countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, shows that with the right knowledge, approaches, and policies, sustainable land and water management is possible.

In total, nine projects concerned with water and land management in Africa were showcased at the AASW7 side event:

  1. The Need for a Watershed Approach to Restore Land and its Hydrologic Function in Africa: The Drylands Development (DryDev) project (Presented by Elsabijn Koelman, Alex Oduor and Maimbo Malesu)
  2. Sustainable Land Resource Management Interventions in the Highlands of Ethiopia (presented by Wolde Bori of IWMI)
  3. Planning for Sustainable Agribusiness in the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) (Presented by Felix Kamau of The Nature Conservancy)
  4. Reorienting Irrigation Investments in the White Volta Basin to Improve Ecosystems Services & the Livelihoods of Women and Youth: Giving Latecomers a head start. (Presented by Mary Opoku-Asiama of the Ghana Irrigation Development Authority GIDA)
  5. Bhungroo: Water Management solutions to support diversified cropping systems for men and women in northern Ghana (Presented by Paa Kofi Osei-Owusu of Conservation Alliance International)
  6. Water Management and Raised Bed technology in the Nile Delta of Egypt  (presented by Atef Swelam of ICARDA)
  7. Restoration of the Upper Tana Water Basin in Kenya (presented by Fred Kizito, CIAT and Emmanuel Rurema from PENTAIR)
  8. Analysis of regional trade policies and impact on sustainable intensification (WaLeTS) (Presented by Birungi Korutaro of The Kilimo Trust)
  9. Agro biodiversity systems for land restoration in Ethiopia (presented by Carlo Fadda of Biodiversity International).

Success factors

The session’s participants then brainstormed the enabling factors that could catalyze the widespread adoption of sustainable land and water management options in Africa.

They identified political will, enabling policies, transparency and performance-based governance as key to success. Cohesive communities are another important element. And for sustainability, they recognized that better land and water management approaches should improve rural people’s livelihoods, and in an inclusive way.

A shared vision,  landscape and watershed approaches to natural resource management, and cross-sectoral and cross-border cooperation with all stakeholders, including the private sector and funding partners, are all essential.

Another important success factor highlighted was clear and coherent public communication; in addition to potential successes, the consequences and costs of inaction should be communicated clearly to communities and policy makers.

When watersheds and land resources are well planned and managed, benefits are accrued that translate into reduced poverty levels, better health and prosperity for society. The true prize is the health and resilience of the ecosystems that underpin it all.

See Dr Dennis Garrity’s keynote presentation

The AASW7 session, Managing Water and Land Resources: the essential pathway to unlock Africa’s agricultural potential, focused on natural resource management and good policy practices as a sustainable and equitable way to ensure productive agriculture.

We would like to thank all donors who supported this research through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.






Further reading:

Trees for Change 12: The quiet revolution: how Niger’s farmers are re-greening the croplands of the Sahel


Photo gallery of Event'

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

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