Resilient productivity: growing enough safe food for a rising population in Africa


Agroforestry can replenish nutrient-depleted soil, increasing its structural stability and capacity to store water. Photo by Daisy Ouya/ICRAF

Sub-Saharan Africa has huge potential for food production, but factors including land degradation and unreliable rainfall mean that this potential remains largely underused. There is still a large gap between actual and potential annual yields, resulting in recurrent food shortages with adverse effects that include hunger, malnutrition, and even local and global insecurity.

For sub-Saharan Africa to feed her growing population now and into the future, the trajectory of agricultural development on the continent must shift towards resilient productivity. This may be defined as agricultural productivity that supports optimal levels of yield while maintaining the ability of the farming system to absorb shocks, be they natural or market-related.

At present, an estimated 65% of the cultivated lands in Africa are infertile and eroded. For resilient productivity this and other issues must be addressed simultaneously. Priority actions include:

Building soil health

Agroecological practices that include agroforestry build below-ground soil biodiversity and soil carbon to support food production. Beyond the production of food, The ‘Feeding Africa’ concept of the African Development Bank acknowledges that healthy agricultural landscapes also provide critical ecosystem services in landscapes: they support biodiversity, deliver water, manage diseases, (especially zoonotic diseases), provide energy, fibre and building materials, and so forth. As such, any changes in African agricultural production systems must seek to maintain this precious ‘natural capital’ matrix.

Land restoration programs are underway throughout the continent. These include the African Forest and Landscape Restoration Initiative of the Africa Union (AFR100) to restore 100 million hectares of degraded lands, and the recently launched AAA (African Agriculture Adaptation). All involve integrating useful trees and shrubs into landscapes, among other actions. Trees on landscapes provide another scarce resource: Energy. In fact, sustainably produced wood fuels can achieve a competitive cost point compared to alternatives.

Closing the yield gap

Sustainable intensification technologies for high production and preservation of ecosystems essential functions are essential. The classic ‘Green Revolution’ approach, characterized by ecosystem simplification, mono-cropping, high dependence on synthetic inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides and intensive tillage, might produce short-terms gains but exact high long-term ecological costs. Land degradation through soil compaction and loss of organic matter is one of these costs. Besides, the approach might not be appropriate for smallholder farmers Africa, who provide up to 80 % of the food supply in sub-Saharan Africa; small-scale farmers typically prefer to spread their risks while optimizing resources use and benefits, by using mixed cropping systems incorporating various food and cash crops, trees and livestock as well as off-farm enterprises.

Closing the yield gap will also require strengthening the infrastructure for postharvest storage, a transformation of agribusiness, and development of a supportive institutional and policy environment for production and marketing of food and other agricultural commodities.

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

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

Paying attention to water

Forward-looking policies and plans at the local, national, and regional levels will allow the continent to capitalize on her water resource. Water use and re-utilization efficiency, and better capture and management of rain and ground water are necessary for resilient agriculture. This is particularly relevant in the context of nexus thinking where interfaces between water and food production will structure subsequent novel approaches for planning resources use.

Strengthening institutions, tenure and governance 

A dynamic, inclusive bio-economy with innovative agriculture and agribusiness approaches is needed. Various projects to promote growth and youth entrepreneurship in the agricultural sector have been initiated, building on the vision set out in the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Program (CAADP) and political commitments such as the Maputo (2003) and Malabo (2013) declarations. These deserve support.

Building on local knowledge, culture and traditional practices on the continent

Marrying modern farming with local and cultural knowledge can produce options that are acceptable to people and work for the huge diversity of farmers and agricultural stakeholders in Africa. Investments in building the capacity of key food system actors, including individual farmers, are needed. Such training would be designed to build resilience against environmental, economic and social shocks, including changing weather brought on by climate change.

These are among the key considerations that would allow Africa to unlock her vast agricultural potential to achieve food security and economic progress in a socially just and environmentally safe way.

Main Author: Cheikh Mbow, Senior Scientist

Contributors: Tor Vagen, Keith Shepherd, Herve Bisseleua, Amos Gyau, Meine van Noordwijk, Leigh Ann Winowiecki, Phil Dobbie and Ravi Prabhu, Susan Onyango and Daisy Ouya,


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