Masai shepherdess brings early morning herd of goats on pasture in Kenya. Photo: Andrzej Kubik/Shutterstock.
Masai shepherdess brings early morning herd of goats on pasture in Kenya. Photo: Andrzej Kubik/Shutterstock.

People are already consuming at a rate faster than the planet can replenish. Yet the world’s population is expected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. This will considerably increase demand for energy, transport, buildings and food.

Agricultural production will need to increase to meet the growing demand for food — projected to increase by 70 percent by mid-century. But agriculture already leaves a large harmful footprint on the environment. The global challenge, then, is to find sustainable ways to feed a growing population. This will be a particularly critical need in Sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 200 million people are hungry or malnourished.

The last decade has witnessed a growing momentum around transforming the way smallholder farmers manage land in Sub-Saharan Africa. To help improve smallholder farming, governments and development partners are working to create the policies, financial mechanisms, technological innovations and market opportunities.

While these efforts are crucial for improving productivity, they do not address the long-term sustainability and resilience of the smallholder production systems. This is particularly the case in the drylands, where the threat of land and soil degradation, water scarcity, and loss of biodiversity looms large.   

This was the underlying rationale for the Global Environment Facility (GEF) program on Fostering Sustainability and Resilience for Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. The program supports 12 countries in the dryland regions to integrate environmental management in the transformation of smallholder agriculture. The program, led by the International Fund for Agricultural Research (IFAD), focuses on safeguarding the natural resources — land, water, soils, trees and genetic resources — that underpin food and nutrition security.

In May 2018, project teams from all 12 countries, together with representatives from six GEF agencies and several technical institutions gathered for a regional workshop at the Headquarters of the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) in Nairobi, Kenya. This was a unique opportunity for knowledge exchange and peer learning by all actors involved in implementation of the program.  

The three of us attended the workshop to represent the GEF, and met more than 100 professionals from 13 other countries in the region: Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.

The workshop presented an opportunity to:

  • discuss ways for connecting the GEF Food Security program with the larger Africa regional agendas, highlighting its contributions to the rural development of smallholders as envisioned by plans like the Agenda 2063, the 2014 Malabo Declaration and NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), and the Sustainable Development Goals;
  • highlight and discuss emerging lessons from projects already underway, including projects in Kenya, Swaziland, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso, in order to inform new projects that will be funded under the food security program during the GEF’s next operational phase, known as GEF-7;
  • Provide an opportunity for representatives from a cross-cutting regional project to meet and assess progress, review the work plan, clarify reporting needs and expectations, financial procedures, and plan next steps;

More importantly, a field trip organized by the Kenya project team enabled us to interact with farmers, and witness several innovative land management practices being promoted under the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund.

A project in the hilly Maragua area of the Upper Tana River Basin, project activities being executed by the charity Caritas, has three main goals: promoting water conservation, ensuring reliable supply of clean water, and enhancing community livelihoods. Caritas collaborates with agricultural officers from the government to help farming households benefit from catchment systems for roof water, use of terraces for soil erosion control, and terrace strengthening with grass that requires low water and nutrients to yield fodder.  

So far, the project has reached 1,720 farmers. Caritas helps them develop a farming plan, and staff provide technical advice and guidance for new marketing strategies to sell their crop. The cost of labor however is undertaken by the farmers, who also pay up to 50 percent of cost of pumps and other equipment. Once they see the initial results, farmers often choose to scale up their activity.

Thanks to the project, farmers have diversified their crop production for higher return, raising livestock and poultry, and have water ponds that allow them to grow produce during the dry season, which they can sell in the market at a competitive advantage.

While nearly 99 percent of the farms in the area are owned by men, about 99 percent of the workers are women, and the project has taken measures to support female-headed households, who don’t have to pay for dam liners (male-headed households would pay 30 percent). Around 80 percent of the project benefits end up accruing to women.

The Upper Tana River Basin project is also working in Kambirwa with the Kenya Rural Roads Authority to benefit 60 farmers. Much like in Maragua, the goal is to prevent high sediment loads from entering Maragua River and delivering much needed water to farms. The Government of Kenya is currently undertaking projects worth $170 million to improve Murang’a county’s road network, allowing for an opportunity to include road water harvesting features in the design.

Road water harvesting is also supported by the public-private Water Fund. The farmer we spoke with said that with the combination of roof water and road water harvesting, he has all the water he needs for his farm, especially during the dry season, when he was able to plant crops that other farmers are unable to, and therefore earn good prices for them in the market.

By emphasizing the critical need for integrating environmental management in the transformation of smallholder agriculture, the GEF Food Security program is creating opportunities for farmers to meet growing demand for food while protecting the important services provided by nature. The land, soil and water that underpin agricultural productivity can only be sustained if farmers are investing in appropriate practices on the farms. And with increasingly large number of farmers applying such innovative practices, the hope of feeding the world and keeping the planet healthy will be realized in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Shimelis Fekadu July 31, 2018

"The land, soil and water that underpin agricultural productivity can only be sustained if farmers are investing in appropriate practices on the farms." I fully agree. I just wanted to add the fact that it is also equally important to answer the question why farmers are not investing in the said practice. the gestation period return on investment in ecological restoration is relatively longer, while the situation of the farmers are acute. as a result there is a need for locally appropriate transition strategy, resourcing at scale and end-to-end support if we are aiming to witness a real change in people life. GEF is a champion in this regards.