During the last decade much has been said about the urgency to develop the African agricultural sector to meet the increasing need for food security across the continent. Frequently it is stressed that Africa largely missed the “Green Revolution” since the continent’s agriculture sector did not transform into an intensive arena with modern technologies to increase the crop yield significantly1.
Until today the East African agricultural sector is dominated for 75% by smallholder farmers that apply low farming inputs, traditional technologies and methods, while agriculture remains the backbone of the economy2. This article discusses a reason for optimism, and how a circular economy (aims close the loop of resources through the establishment of restorative and regenerative systems), can contribute to food security and food productivity in East Africa.
Africa missed the Green revolution; an opportunity to implement circular food systems in Africa
In contrast to other countries and continents, Sub-Saharan Africa largely missed the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 19th century by adopting intensive agriculture practicies to increase the crop yields1. As a result, much of the continent cannot keep pace with the needs of the growing populations, while attempting to generate high quantities of food loses due to poor farming and post-harvesting handling techniques1.
The “Green Revolution” in developed countries shifted more toward a catastrophic solution to produce mass quantities of food. Initially, the shocking approach to industrial farming was directly proportionate to the price of food which was correlated with the fluctuation of oil prices. As petroleum prices affected agricultural prices both directly and indirectly, through the price of fuel and fertilizers3, as well as transportation, food manufacturers continued to find ways to decrease the price of output.
According to the FAO “agricultural commodity prices are becoming increasingly correlated with the price of oil” 3. Therefore, many developing countries that are net importers of petroleum products are highly affected by the high oil prices, resulting in an increased cost in agricultural production, thus aggravating the existing food crisis4. In addition, research has proven that the continued use of pesticides and intensive farming are related to the enormous decline in bee populations5. As a result, that some farmers are already forced to pollinate crops by hand, which would not be economically possible in the most part of the world. In fact, “More than Honey”, the award-winning documentary produced by Swiss directors stressed that a third of the world’s food produce wouldn’t be present if it were not for bees.6
Intensive farming has immense consequences for global food production and (insect)-biodiversity, but also on human health. A recent study has proven that American consumers with an organic diet for 6 days (food produced without pesticides and other chemicals) have 70% lower levels of glyphosate in their body than consumers with a non-organic diet. Glyphosate is a globally used pesticide that is classified as a human carcinogen for cancer and can increase the risk of other health concerns.
In sum, the missed Green Revolution in the African agricultural sector is an opportunity to learn from the consequences of intensive and industrial farming in other countries, and to move to sustainable, regenerative and circular farming practices to produce healthy food. Circular Africa highlights three circular solutions that can increase food security and food production in Africa through a” circular economy” approach.
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Solution 1. Convert organic waste and agricultural by-products into sustainable farming inputs and products
African cities are under high pressure to ensure food security due to increasingly growing urban populations. With an increasing demand for food, there is a high level of waste accumulation, especially in cities. In Nairobi alone, inhabitants produce more than 3,000 tonnes of waste a day8. It is estimated that Kenya’s population will grow from 53.8 million in 2020 to 91.6 million, with an urban population of 48% by 20509.
Waste accumulation in fast growing cities can even result in other threats such as diseases and other health concerns. Organic waste in urban areas can be transformed into compost, organic fertilizers and insect-based animal feed by growing black soldier flies on organic waste. Since the rural farming areas are acknowledged by low agricultural inputs, there is an enormous potential to transform organic urban waste into organic inputs for farming in the rural areas. The utilization of inexpensive organic inputs such as organic fertilizers and compost can result in significant productivity increase for small scale farmers.
In a similar fashion, other circular economy solutions can also be used across different sectors, for instance, organic waste in urban areas can also be utilized in other solutions such as bio-briquettes and biogas as an alternative for firewood and other energy resources. Solutions are not restricted to only organic waste of the urban areas, but also agricultural by-products in food processing industries, which can be utilized to generate new products.
These solutions are a win-win situation for farmers, urban and of course the rural environment since it helps farmers to increase the farming productivity with inexpensive inputs. On the other hand, cities can create new business opportunities by the utilization of waste into new business solutions, while also creating a healthier and safer city. To do so, research is needed to study the different food systems, value chains and infrastructures to unlock new business potentials.
Solution 2. Design efficient food systems to reduce food lost and post-harvest losses.
Food and organic waste do not only take place in the city, but are common across the full value chain, especially in rural areas. In contrast to high income countries, developing nations experience a high loss of food waste, approx. two-thirds of output production, due to poor handling and storage facilities. In 2009, 39 percent of the food lost or food waste of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa happens in the production, 37 percent in handling and storage, 7 percent in processing, 13 percent in distribution and market and only 5 percent in the consumption10. Solutions such as improved farming practices, improved post-harvest handling techniques (e.g. cold storage and drying techniques), and adding value to agricultural commodities through food processing, all play a crucial role in reducing food and post-harvest losses.
Solution 3. Regenerative farming
Circular agriculture does not need to restrict itself to reduce post-harvest losses, but also includes regenerative farming practices at farmers level. Circular agriculture can be considered as an ecosystem, whereby crops and animals (livestock) live together in a closed system. For instance, organic duck farming with ducks, whereby the ducks eat insects and the rice takes up the residues of the ducks11. As a result, that the farmer does not only create an income from the rice but also from the ducks (meat and eggs). Other examples include mixed farm systems, aquaculture (crops and fish a grown in closed ecosystem), agroforestry, which are also upcoming initiatives across the region.
In sum, the missed “Green Revolution” is an opportunity to transform the (East) African food system into a healthy and circular food system to increase food security & productivity. Are you ready for Green Revolution?
Author: Elke Nijman
Elke Nijman is an agricultural and circular food system expert with over 6 years of field experience.
She is the Founder of Circular Africa, a consulting, training, information portal developing the circular economy solutions in East Africa.