We would like to take a moment to explain what we are solving through our work.
Millions of men, women, and children on the African continent go to bed hungry each night as a result of rampant poverty and a lack of access to resources, like schools, credit and seeds, that many of us don’t even think about. While much of the world’s population has moved off the farm in the last 50 years, the World Bank estimates that 65 percent of the African workforce relies solely on agriculture to support themselves and their families. Resource poor, many of these farmers are using destructive farming practices that are harming the environment and the health of one of Africa’s most important natural resources: soil. Throughout history, when civilizations have cut their trees and degraded their soils, they die off. It’s as easy as that. To end the use of harmful farming practices and break this cycle of poverty worsening across Africa, we must develop a new way to farm that provides families with food, fuel, and animal fodder, and allows them to increase their income significantly by investing in the long-term health of their land and natural resources.
Who are these millions of poor farmers?
Nearly one-quarter of the world’s 1 billion undernourished people – those who struggle to survive on less than $1.25 per day – live in Africa.1 Smallholder farms are vital to the financial well-being of sub-Saharan Africa, where 65% of the population is dependent on farming and/or livestock rearing for their livelihood.2 Though these farmers produce more than 80% of the food consumed on the continent, most are food insecure, meaning they do not have consistent, reliable access to a sufficient amount of affordable, nutritious food for their families.
What is the cycle of poverty?
The pressure to increase farm productivity will only grow stronger as the global population continues to rise. Africa’s poor smallholder farmers are faced with what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has called a “poverty trap”. It works like this: the land that farmers use has low-quality soils and high vulnerability to land degradation.3 Faced with declining productivity on existing farmland, farmers are forced to seek higher yields through either expensive and dangerous synthetic inputs (fertilizers, pesticides) or by converting more forest land to farming. The pressure they place on existing farmlands, forests, and ecosystems makes their natural resources less productive each year, resulting in a downward spiral that it impossible to break using the same conventional agricultural farming strategies which are continually promoted across the continent.
What does it mean to be resource poor?
For these farmers, there are few options for credit and savings, and all they often inherit from the previous generation is a small, relatively infertile piece of land from which they must sustain for themselves and their families. This is the essence of being resource poor. Getting the seeds for next planting season is difficult enough; what is worse, is that they rely on decidedly unreliable factors – draft animals, cheap tools, and an ever-changing climate.
The alternative to success for millions of farmers is not simply failure; it is death. The stakes are high when you depend on the land for your life. Smallholder farmers’ reliance on production from their land for both income and nutrition means that the risks associated with investing in any new practices without external support is often unbearably great.4 Helping to mitigate this risk — through the provision of seeds, tools, training, and multi-year, continuous technical support —breaks this cycle of poverty by giving farmers the skills and resources they need to improve their land, livelihoods, and their lives.
Which destructive practices are degrading soils in Africa?
1. Monocultures – In monoculture systems, farmers plant their entire field in a single crop with the expectation that it will provide them with enough food and income to get them through to the next harvest. This encourages farmers to burn or clear all vegetation on the field every year. When that crop fails — and they often do due to pests, diseases, market shocks, floods, bad quality seed, lack of proper tools to care for the field, or drought — it is devastating to the farmer and their family as they often have no other means to support themselves. In addition, the limited number of food types produced on a family’s farm means the family may not have regular access to a variety of important vitamins and minerals, increasing the likelihood of malnutrition and food insecurity.
In addition, monocultures often depend on the use of expensive chemical inputs (such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers) which have a high carbon footprint. Regularly misused, their application can result in groundwater, surface water and air pollution, as well as adversely affect the health and safety of people, animals, and soil microorganisms.
2. Overgrazing — Many smallholder farmers in Africa also rely on livestock (goats, sheep, and cattle) to produce meat and milk. They act as important protein sources for families without access to diverse foods. When there are too many animals on too little land, they consume all vegetation, including any young trees and shrub saplings, leaving nothing to grow. The animals’ hooves also compact the bare soil, further limiting vegetative growth, increasing erosion and decreasing water infiltration. Though rangeland experts reference the positive contribution that animals provide in the form of their manure, the extensive land degradation they cause from overgrazing exceeds most benefits they provide. An additional source of destruction comes from herders burning dry swaths of land to encourage new grass to grow so that their animals may graze on fresh stems.
3. Fuelwood – Wood is the primary source of energy for 90% of the population across Sub-Saharan Africa. Though communities first prefer to collect and burn dead wood lying on the ground, once reserves are depleted they begin harvesting wood from live trees. Nobel Laureate Wangari Mathaai famously summarized the problem: “Poor people will cut the last tree to cook the last meal. The more you degrade the environment, the more you dig deeper into poverty.”
4. Slash-and-burn – As farmland becomes increasingly degraded and less productive, farmers often cut and burn existing vegetation on additional land to increase yields. This technique, which provides some immediate nutrients to the soil, is the cause of about 70% of the deforestation in Africa. After burning the vegetation to make way for new fields, farmers continue using the same environmentally destructive practices that first degraded their soils, forcing them to continually expand onto more land and begin the cycle again.
So what should we do?
Hundreds of millions of farmers need to adopt a proven, superior, diverse agricultural system that:
• Enables them to make significantly more money;
• Diversifies the sources of revenue and the timing of ‘paydays’ throughout the year;
• Empowers them to feed their families and animals throughout the year;
• Restores -rather than degrades- natural resources;
• Eliminates their dependence on costly inputs;
• Ends the battle between farms and forests;
• Meets communities’ energy needs;
• Promotes self-sufficiency rather than dependency;
• Reduces farmers’ vulnerability to risks related to markets, pests, and weather extremes;
• Conserves, rather than kills, the natural biodiversity; and…
…is scalable, simple, and replicable among the hundreds of millions of impoverished farmers in desperate need of a new solution.
The problem is indeed complex, but the solution — our proven farming system called the Forest Garden — is surprisingly simple.