Why Africa Needs Agricultural Monitoring: One Kenyan’s View

CI and partners recently received a generous grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to create the Africa Monitoring System, a new initiative which aims to monitor ecosystems, agriculture and livelihoods in five regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Dr. Alex Awiti, an ecosystems ecologist based at Nairobi’s Aga Khan University, will be contributing to the project; in this guest blog, he explains why it’s so important.

Withered corn growing in Tanzania's Eastern Highlands. (© Benjamin Drummond)

In June 2011, I visited a feisty grandmother in Wasare village near Lake Victoria. Ann is 75 years old and barely ekes out a living on her family farm. She happily volunteered to give me a tour of her half-acre estate. We stopped at a vantage point, a little mound on the edge of the farm, for a picturesque view of her field and the village beyond.

Like all her neighbors, Ann’s field was planted with corn. Grass-thatched and iron-roofed homes looked like islands in a sea of pale corn. In the middle of the growing season, the corn was thin with spindly stalks, barely one meter tall.

Ann recounted memories of three-quarters of a century spent on the shores of Lake Victoria in western Kenya. She talked about poor yields and barren soils, scarlet rivers and dusty fields, denuded hills and flash floods. She remembered her youthful years five decades ago as a fish trader, when the water was clear, fish were abundant, the hilltops were green and lush, and harvests plentiful.

“There are just too many of us,” Ann remarked. “All of us scrambling for space to live, land to grow food and pasture for our livestock. We work a lot harder for much less to eat and nothing to save for a rainy day. Maybe this land is no longer capable of supporting all of us. The large trees, the colorful birds and animals of my grandmother’s stories are no longer here. It is a very different world.”

My gaze rested on a bare patch, which exposed what could be the root cause of the withered corn. The Earth’s fragile skin, the soil, was gravely wounded and pale, drained of all vital minerals. Gulleys scarred the landscape, evidence of sustained hemorrhaging of fertile soils.

Ann’s story is shared by hundreds of millions of farmers across sub-Saharan Africa. The continent’s smallholder agricultural systems have inadvertently degraded vital ecosystem services like flood protection, water supply and soil nutrient cycling.

Significant global financial resources are currently flowing to sub-Saharan Africa, where the international community has set ambitious goals for ending poverty, hunger and malnutrition among smallholder farmers through increasing agricultural productivity. In my view, while yields and profits can make a big difference for Africa’s people, these improvements alone cannot guarantee sustainable gains in income and nutrition for smallholder farmers.

A fundamental question underlies Africa’s socioeconomic and environmental sustainability: How can smallholder farmers increase land productivity, profitability and human well-being outcomes without causing irreparable damage to the natural world on which they depend?

Africa’s smallholder production systems depend on essential natural capital — the ecosystem services generated at multiple spatial scales. As a result, solutions to the challenges Ann and others face will require a landscape-wide approach. However, much existing knowledge of ecosystems and agriculture is local and scattershot. As such, policymakers and landowners often must make important land-use and land-management decisions based on partial and incomplete understanding of landscape-level interactions and feedback.

Without concerted investments in a framework to track changes in ecosystem services and human well-being, gains in food production are unlikely to be sustainable in the long run. I therefore argue for a new approach to supporting African agriculture; to improve decisions on sustainable land use and land management, a holistic understanding of ecosystem health and human well-being is critical.

Africa needs an integrated diagnostic and monitoring framework to generate data and information at appropriate scales to support decision-making at both the national policy and household levels. Such a framework requires examining a wide range of indicators, including land productivity, soil and plant health, biodiversity, water quality and human well-being.

Alex Awiti

The Africa Monitoring System aims to do just that, minimizing environmental impacts and ensuring that food security and the well-being of Ann and millions of farmers like her across sub-Saharan Africa can be improved in a sustainable manner.

Dr. Alex Awiti is an ecosystems ecologist based at Aga Khan University in Nairobi. He will lead the university’s contribution to the Africa Monitoring System. To learn more about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent commitments to promote sustainable agriculture in Africa, check out this post on the foundation’s blog, Impatient Optimists.


  1. Kathleen Zuniga says

    I think it’s great that there is going to be monitoring of agriculture in Africa. I think this will be a great improvement and will help evolve the living conditions to more efficient ones by helping with their crops.

  2. Pingback: Growing Food, Protecting the Land in Africa – Donor & Partner News - State of the Planet

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