Fighting off hunger, malnutrition and environmental degradation while supporting economic growth. 

We are working with small-scale farmers in rural East Africa to increase agricultural yields by researching, developing, evaluating, and disseminating successful approaches to and applications of sustainable agriculture in the region. Working with local farmers, agencies, and engaging students and faculty in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, our Sustainable Agriculture Program will:

  • Systematically research, develop, and evaluate successful approaches in sustainable agriculture
  • Disseminate these approaches through education and training programs
  • Highlight the significant role of sustainable agriculture in regional and global food security
  • Specify fields of action for regional agricultural policy
  • Establish and maintain networks between local and international partners to promote the dissemination of successful concepts

Backbone of the economy

East Africa faces serious problems of food insecurity and nutrition-related health risks. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, both the prevalence of undernourishment and the number of undernourished people have fallen in recent decades, both globally and in developing countries. Amongst developing regions, however, hunger remains particularly problematic in Sub-Saharan Africa, where improvements have not kept pace with population growth. From 1992 to 2012, although the prevalence of undernourishment in the region fell from 33% to 27%, the number of undernourished people rose from 170 million to 234 million. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, the depth of hunger in East Africa is especially great. In this area, the undernourishment rate saw no improvement during this period, and the number of undernourished people nearly doubled, growing from 29 million to 52 million. About 16% of Kenyan children under the age of five have been affected by malnutrition. In Burundi, the figure is 35%. Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda fall somewhere in between.

According to the International Food Policy Research Institute's Global Hunger Index, Burundi is the only country in East Africa that has not moved out of the “extremely alarming” category since 1990. Since 1990 it has ranked 80th out of 81 countries. Tanzania's ranking has improved since 1996 but the country has remained in the “alarming” category. Uganda has stayed in the “serious” category, while Kenya has moved from "alarming" to "serious." High food prices were linked to a 62% increase in cases of acute malnutrition among young children in Nairobi's health centers and hospitals between January and May 2011.

When natural disaster strikes, some three quarters of Tanzania’s subsistence farmers are vulnerable to malnutrition. They have too little fertile land or capital to invest in improved techniques, and no alternative sources of income. The situation in Kenya is similar; as a result of drought in 2000, more than half of the population did not have enough to eat. Production of staple crops was well below average in the northern and central parts of the country; maize production was 69% below expected.

Agriculture is also the backbone of East Africa’s economy. It accounts for 19% of Kenya’s GDP, employs more than 70% of its workforce, and generates about 59% of national export revenue. It is even more important in Tanzania, where farming accounts for about 28% of GDP, employs 78-90% of the workforce, and produces 39% of export earnings. Tanzania’s economy experienced increased growth between 2000 and 2010. However, the national poverty rate did not see significant improvement in the same period, mainly due to the lower growth rate in agriculture since 1990 than that of the non-agriculture sectors. Significant poverty reduction depends on higher growth in the rural economy, and particularly in the agriculture sector.

The potential of agriculture

Because so many people in East Africa are rural, the pace of economic development and potential for eradicating poverty depend largely on growth in the agricultural sector. Farming contributes far less to the national economy than its percentage of the workforce.

Agriculture therefore has immense potential in the region. It can:

  • Provide adequate and affordable food for a rising population. The process of industrialization and urbanization currently underway in Kenya and Tanzania requires a supply of relatively cheap food for the growing urban labor force.
  • Create prosperous farmers, a big potential market for domestic industries and services.
  • Provide employment and income to a large percentage of the population. Small improvements in farm productivity and rural earnings, multiplied by millions of smallholder farmers, can generate huge benefits for the country as a whole.
  • Supply raw materials to a growing domestic industrial sector.
  • Earn valuable foreign exchange that can be used to finance imports of capital and intermediate goods for local development.
  • Serve as a significant source of domestic savings for investment and capital formation.

There is considerable historical evidence that solid agricultural growth has to precede, or at least accompany, general economic growth. This transformation process still applies today; Africa will not be an exception.

The yields on many farms in Kenya and Tanzania have declined. The reasons for this are manifold: soil fertility is falling because of monocropping with maize and other staples; farmers are no longer able to afford inputs such as fertilizer and seeds after subsidies were withdrawn during the policy reforms of the last decades; and a series of droughts has cut production.

The benefits of sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture addresses the following critical issues:

  • Soil fertility: Conventional farming methods rely on artificial fertilizers to maintain fertility. Sustainable agriculture uses a range of techniques to maintain and improve soil fertility, including organic fertilizers, mulching, cover crops, agroforestry, crop rotation, and multiple cropping.
  • Pests: Conventional farming uses expensive chemical pesticides that often result in the emergence of new pests or the resurgence of the very kinds they are trying to control. Sustainable agriculture instead uses integrated pest management approaches: a combination of natural enemies, crop rotations and mixtures, and biological control methods. These methods cost less and have a higher success rate.
  • Erosion: Sustainable agriculture includes a palette of techniques to conserve precious topsoil and prevent it from being washed or blown away. These include using contour bunds, contour planting, check-dams, gully plugs, and maintaining cover crops or mulch to protect the soil from heavy rainfall.
  • Water scarcity: Water is scarce in much of Kenya and Tanzania, and drought is never far away. Sustainable agriculture conserves water in the soil through a variety of methods. Fortunately, many are the same as those used to control soil erosion. Because it preserves water and uses a variety of crops instead of just one, sustainable agriculture is less risky than conventional monocropping: it is more likely to produce food for the farm family even during a drought.
  • Supply chain: Farmers often do not realize the value of the inputs they have immediately to hand. These can include manure from their animals (often wasted in conventional systems), vegetation from roadsides and field boundaries (used as mulch or to make compost), and local crop varieties (many of which are ideally adapted to local conditions but have been half forgotten in the rush to adopt modern varieties).
  • Indigenous knowledge: Locals are experts on the plants, animals, soils, and ecosystems they are surrounded by and on which they depend. Sustainable agriculture draws on this wealth of knowledge and encourages local people to use it, test it, and promote what works.
  • Local action: The energy and capacity of local people to solve their own problems is equally important. Unlike conventional extension agencies, organizations that promote sustainable agriculture spend at least as much time helping farmers organize as they do teaching farming technologies.

Ironically, many sustainable agriculture approaches are very similar to the techniques used by farmers before the advent of modern farming. That does not mean, however, that sustainable agriculture turns its back on more recently developed inputs or ideas. Many types of sustainable agriculture use modern high-yielding crop varieties and artificial fertilizers when appropriate.