Sustainable Intensification: Making Science the Solution for African Agriculture

This post of mine originally appeared on Huffington Post here.

As the expiration date of the Millennium Development Goals draws closer, our promise to eradicate extreme hunger and poverty remains largely unfulfilled. In sub-Saharan Africa,over 200 million people (nearly 23% of the population) are chronically hungry and 40% of children under the age of five are stunted due to malnutrition. As a global community, we urgently need to establish new models for addressing these challenges.

Science-based agriculture offers such a solution – not only tackling food insecurity but also overlapping with multiple, interacting global threats, from managing scarce supplies of land and water to minimizing carbon emissions and post-harvest losses. Whilst no silver bullet exists to eliminate these threats, scientific approaches can go a long way to manage them. Across the agricultural value chain from agricultural research laboratories to agronomists and extension workers in the field and processors and exporters, scientific interventions can help people at each step to make African agriculture a great deal more productive and resilient, as well as more viable as a livelihood and business for the continent’s farmers.

The Chicago Council’s Global Food Security Symposium and its upcoming report, Advancing Global Food Security: The Power of Science, Trade, and Business, will discuss this very question of how to capitalize on the power of science to end hunger. Similarly, arecent report from the Montpellier Panel outlines a new paradigm for African smallholders focusing on ‘sustainable intensification.’ The term refers to equipping farmers with the innovations required to navigate the joint goals of producing more nutritious food and boosting incomes whilst preserving the environment, adapting to climate change and reducing food waste.

This concept is by no means new but has typically been associated with larger commercial farms and with other regions of the world. Conversely, crop yields in Africa have remained largely stagnant, only 4% of cultivated land in Africa is irrigated, and 75% of soils on the continent are classified as degraded. If African agriculture does not adapt, under current climate predictions, even current yield levels will decrease by 1.5% by 2050.

Happily, we need not accept these bleak projections as inevitable. Science-based solutions can give African smallholders access to the context-specific innovations they need to reverse this reality. They will allow African farmers to boost their productivity sustainably – balancing higher production and productivity with socio-economic realities (especially amongst smallholders) as well as sound environmental management.

The Montpellier Panel report divides the sustainable intensification process into three categories. The first is ecological intensification, in which natural ecosystems are managed more effectively. Practices include the planting of faidherbia trees, a leguminous tree species which sheds its nitrogen-rich leaves during the wet season, thereby providing nutrients to crops planted below, allowing sunlight in as well as fixing two tons or more per hectare of carbon to the soil.

The second category is genetic intensification, that develops crops and livestock better suited to various challenges, for instance, achieving higher yields, withstanding extreme temperatures, and also being more nutritious, such as in the case of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in Mozambique that have doubled citizens’ daily intake of essential mineral Vitamin A.

The final facet is socio-economic intensification, which looks to create more of an enabling environment for farmers and others to learn, share, collaborate and support. This encompasses efficient farmer organizations and cooperatives and robust land rights as well as improved infrastructure for storing and transporting crops, and high quality extension services to provide farmers with the training they need.

In order to realize this vision of sustainable intensification in a way that will work for African smallholders, several concrete actions can be taken. First, the policy environment for the food and agriculture sector must become more socially inclusive and business-friendly in order to promote participation and cooperation. Local enterprises in Africa should be encouraged, by both streamlining yet pressure-testing current legal requirements and regional trading regulations.

Investment can also be facilitated by encouraging the private sector, public sector, civil society and knowledge institutes to collaboratively determine the outcomes they all desire, which should also enable strategic partnerships to grow. Providing fundamental inputs such as good quality seeds and the right amount of fertilizers must be prioritized, especially oriented to reach smallholder farmers. Public services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation are also crucial for a healthy and empowered agricultural workforce.

The challenges are great, but the window of opportunity is greater. Science-based solutions for African agriculture have the potential to achieve synergistic outcomes for a more prosperous and resilient Africa.


DAY 4: Eating on £1 per Day

On Day 4 of eating on £1 a day, I felt as if I was spending my entire life preparing and cooking.

I woke up in the morning and made porridge for breakfast and then also had to prepare some boiled white rice for lunch.  I also still had four of my five apples left and needed to come up with a way to use them (I wasn’t enjoying how tart they were so had avoided eating them earlier in the week.)

So I decided to make a simple apple tart — one for me and one for my friend who is also eating on £1 a day this week.  Pastry ingredients were quite simple: equal parts butter and white flour with slightly less equivalent of water.  Then just mix the butter and flour together and then drip on the water as you go until you get the right consistency and then thinly slice apple and lay it along the top of the pastry and sprinkle a bit of sugar on top:

Making pastry Rolling out  pastry Apple tarts ready for the oven

I was able to afford the butter, flour and sugar because I will not be using my second can of baked beans (37p) and probably the last two of my five apples (20p).  I should say though that this is technically not abiding by the rules of the campaign as I would have had to buy the entire block of butter and an entire bag of flour and  sugar (which I did not).

Put the tarts into the oven at Gas Mark 5, and in about 10 minutes or so, they were ready.  I put a bit of extra sugar on top and then caramelised it with my blowtorch (again, thank you, technology):

Caramelising the sugarApple tarts

They turned out pretty well.  I still have to deliver the second tart. I hope it goes down a treat.

Dinner was much the same as earlier in the week: boiled potatoes with chives, two dry-fried eggs and mixed vegetables although I was able to harvest some rocket leaves from my garden, which was a real treat.

Dinner Day 4

Relative Poverty

I think that most people, when they think of poverty, think in absolute terms.  In essence, this is what the £1 a day challenge is all about — determine a minimal level of physical subsistence required (i.e. £1 a day) and then anyone who falls under that line is considered poor.

In reality, poverty is much more complex a phenomenon than that.  “Relative poverty” is defined not in absolute terms but based on the average standard of living in the society where you live. Similarly, policymakers and practitioners are also debating whether additional metrics (other than income) should be factored in, such as life span, education and even “happiness”.

So far this week, I seem to have been able to give myself enough food each day, but I definitely have felt deprived in the context of others around me.  A good lesson to reflect on for the remainder of the week.

DAY 3: Eating on £1 per Day

I’m just about finished with Day Three of eating for £1 a day.  I am starting to get into the flow of how this all works.  The eating itself is actually getting easier, but two things I’ve noticed which are different than my typical routine:

  1. How much I think about food. At night I think about what my next day’s meals will be. The next morning, I have to remember to bring my Tupperware of lunch with me in the morning. At lunch and during the afternoon, I think about what I am going to make for dinner. And every once in a while, I worry that I will run out of food before the week is over — not a nice feeling.
  2. How much time I spend actually making food. Cooking two meals a day (breakfast and dinner) takes a lot more time than I remembered.  Having gotten out of the habit of cooking so often during the week, I find myself consciously rearranging plans to make sure I can be home in time to eat.  I even skipped an after-work lecture tonight because of it.

As for meals, I had a good breakfast of porridge and a frozen banana which I’d stuck in the freezer on Sunday because they were already getting too ripe (You could buy twice as many ripe bananas for the same price). And for lunch, I had more leftovers of my lentil and rice concoction.

Dinner was, again, surprisingly good.  I ended up straining the last bits of lentil stew along with my remaining half tin of baked beans in order to separate the beans from the liquids. Once the liquid was separated, I took leftover boiled potatoes from Tuesday’s dinner and mashed all of the solids up together into two vegetarian patties.

Straining lentils and beansSolids and liquids separated

I dry-fried the bean patties and warmed up the sauce and some frozen mixed vegetables.  It was actually really good and cost less than 50p to make.

Bean patties with mixed vegetables

Role of Technology

My broader reflection for today is on the role of technology in helping us eat well.  I used my freezer to keep my bananas from spoiling, I used my refrigerator to store my leftover lentils, I transported my lunch in plastic Tupperware (which was reheated in a microwave) , and I crisped up my bean patties on a non-stick pan (to avoid the cost of expensive cooking oil).

We forget how much of a role technology plays in our food storage, transport and preparation.  For many farmers in the developing world, this is not their reality.  While we waste about a third of our food (yes, a third) as consumer waste, farmers in developing countries lose between 5 -30% due to poor or non-existing storage and transport in what is called “post-harvest losses“.  In other words, they bag up their maize (or whatever other crop they’ve grown) after harvest, but it gets attacked by pests and diseases like rats or molds before it can get eaten.  Or there’s no good road to transport the crops to markets so it spoils before it can be sold.  In my view, this is one of the most important and challenging problems that the agricultural world should address (perhaps second only to increasing agricultural productivity).

Thank you, Tupperware, non-stick pan, refrigerator and freezer and, yes, even the microwave.

DAY 2: Eating on £1 per Day

Day Two of eating on only £1 per day went quite well.  I felt full and satisfied, if only a little bored or constrained by the lack of options.

For lunch, I had the leftover lentil stew and rice concoction that I had made for dinner the previous night.

Lentil stew with rice_£1 a day

Not great surprises in the recipe — lentils, water, salt/pepper and the frozen mixed vegetables for the stew and steamed rice — except for the fact that I could turn to my herb garden for a bunch of fresh rosemary and then also fresh chives for mixing in with the rice and over the top at the end.

Gardening at home

Having a herb garden has made a big difference already, and coincidentally home gardens are also one of the best ways to improve the nutrition of the rural poor. At an event held in Parliament by the UK Hunger Alliance on Monday Night, they launched a report which recommended home gardens as one solution fighting malnutrition (Did you know that among children under age five globally, 26 percent of them are stunted in their growth and 16 percent are underweight?). The home gardens supply them with a broader range of nutritious foods such as  leafy vegetables, eggs or poultry meat for their families but also — if there is extra food leftover — they can sell the surplus food to make some extra money.


As I sat at the pub with a glass of water in my hand, my friend Emily graciously tried to convince me that her buying me a pint would be the equivalent of a friend or family member helping someone out if they were short on cash one week.  What awesome friends I have, as it wasn’t the first such offer (and a great reminder of the importance of informal “safety nets” for the poor).  But I declined the offer and made my way home to cook dinner.

At a stretch,this recipe is like breakfast for dinner. I boiled some potatoes and mixed them with half a can of baked beans and then dry-fried an egg which went on top along with some more of my fresh chives. It was actually quite good.

Egg baked beans potato_ £1 a day

Thanks for all the nice emails so far.  Feel free to leave comments below as well!

DAY 1: Eating on £1 per Day

For five days this week, I am eating on only £1 per day as part of the “Live Below the Line” campaign.  

The campaign challenges those of us living in the developed world to buy, source, cook and eat food as if we were living at the poverty line – in order to help us understand poverty better and (perhaps) motivate us to do something about it.

Preparing for the week:

Over the weekend, I met up with a friend of mine also doing the challenge to do our shopping.  We figured that we would have a better chance of getting good bulk deals if we shopped together.  At the store, we immediately realised how scant our options were: no meat, no dairy, no juices, no alcohol, no cooking oils, few fruits and vegetables, no brand names. We mainly bought simple sources of carbohydrates and protein (rice, lentils, beans, oats, potatoes) and some fruit and vegetables to mix in with them.

£1 per day shopping

Getting our purchases home, we then realised that even the amount of food we had purchased would take us over our £1-per-day limit so we allocated out the food and calculated the costs:

  • 3 bananas @ 14p = 42p
  • 5 apples @10p = 50p
  • 2 tins of beans @37p = 74p
  • 3 eggs @ 10p = 30p
  • 1kg potatoes = 64p
  • 500g red lentils = 50p
  • 500g rice = 50p
  • 500g oats = 50p
  • 450g frozen mixed vegetables = 50p
  • Salt/pepper = 5p
  • Home-grown vegetables and herbs (cost of seeds) = 35p

£1 per day food allocation

So far today, the cultural aspects of food are already looking to be the most difficult for me to deal with.  For instance, last night, my flatmate baked a large chocolate cake, which I know I won’t be able to sample this week.  Also, this morning, my colleague made me a cup of coffee that I do not have budget to drink.  And later this afternoon, I am going to a drinks reception where I won’t be able to hold a glass of wine in my hand as I meet the others who have attended.  Not an insurmountable hurdle by any means, but it does go to show how much of our social interaction revolves around sharing food and drinks with each other.

My lunch consisted of five small boiled potatoes which I supplemented with fresh chives and rosemary from my herb garden.  It wasn’t actually half bad — a bit dry and plain but the herbs really helped.

£1 day lunch day 1

I’ll need to get cooking tonight.  I plan to make red lentil soup with rice and some mixed vegetables — should be delicious.

Justice and Compromise in the Middle East

The recent political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East have caused many to speculate on what the next generation of governance will look like in the region.

Will news governance structures emerge or will new leaders simply fill the voids in an unchanged political system?  And how will the new leadership balance this transition while maintaining sufficient stability and cohesiveness to ensure economies and cultures are kept sufficiently in tact?

In one of the most reflective pieces I have read on the topic, Cambridge historian Marc Michael discusses how the searches for truth and justice can be balanced in a post-Mubarak Egypt. Does immunity for some in exchange for information necessarily imply that others will be scapegoated as a result?

The author above argues for a model adapted from the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRC) set up in post-Apartheid South Africa and Rwanda in order to give culpable Egyptians the chance “to participate in the rebuilding of their nation rather than undermining reform for the sake of their personal safety or privileges.”

The need for compromise in political decisions is not unique to transitional governments.  Governments face these decisions on a daily basis: growth vs. stability, secularism vs. self-expression, liberty vs. order, tradition vs. progress and, yes, truth vs. justice.  (Read the work of Ronan McCrea of Reading University if you’re interested in this from a religious perspective in the EU.)

Striking the right compromise between these competing objectives can often be as much of a challenge as the original struggle which gives people the power to make them.

Communicating Climate Change Creatively

On my flight from London to Cancun, I had a layover in Miami and found myself on a flight full of designers on their way to Art Basel Miami and Design Miami.  Next to me, a wiry architect was busy scribbling sketches of building exteriors in a notebook.  In front of me, a colourfully dressed art lover was flipping through the latest edition of the Art Newspaper.

Perhaps a bit odd, but I felt quite at home amongst my new peer group since I envision the practice of CSR/sustainability communcations as fundamentally a creative exercise, albeit with the more practical goal of building value for the organisation.

With this in mind, I have noted below a few of the more creative ways in which businesses have leveraged their attendance at these climate talks to illustrate my case for creative climate communications.

Example #1

Staff Training/Networking: The legal climate behind COP16

A team of lawyers from the international law firm, Norton Rose, have set up a blog and Twitter account to help communicate the legal implications of the climate policies being negotiated at COP16.

Not only is this a great marketing tool for potential and existing clients, but this exercise also helps keep Norton Rose’s lawyers up to date with the latest legal developments emerging from the negotiations.  This will help them deliver valuable services to their clients, for instance, on how various legal frameworks might clash with each other or how carbon markets will function and who will be required (or invited) to participate in them (or not).

Innovative CSR strategies like this one acknowledge that offering a public benefit (in this case, free legal commentary on climate policies) add commercial value in terms of your employees’ expertise and networks as well.

Example #2

Product innovation: Technology-driven climate responsiveness

Two Google representatives attended a US Government-sponsored exhibition highlighting innovations in satellite mapping technologies and their ability to inform disaster planning and response strategies.  The technology in question was partially built using Google Earth technology.

After the presentation, the Google representatives asked about how they could further orient their tools so that others could use them for related developmental purposes, presumably as part of their work.

It’s a simple and perhaps obvious idea, but companies like Google whose products can be extended in innovative ways can not only build reputational benefits by doing so, but they can also build staff loyalty and encourage further innovation amongst their employees, some of which could translate into commercially-viable products or services. It also helps to develop relationships with stakeholder groups who become de facto ambassadors for the Google brand themselves.

Since the United Nations foresees a transformative role of Information Communication Technologies in the fight against climate change, which they blog about here, this sector can benefit tremendously. Google has already committed to allocating 1% of its equity and profits each year to philanthropic work like this, which puts it level with the most generous countries – namely Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg – in terms of what percentage of their yearly income they donate per year.

Example #3

Thought Leadership: Cementing your reputation through partnerships

Cemex, a Mexican cement company, has partnered with the World Green Building Council to host a day-long side event here at COP16 entitled “Key Challenges for Construction in the 21st Century – Open Dialogue with Experts on Sustainable Construction.”

As a 2007 New York Times article rightly pointed out, “cement is literally the glue of progress…but making cement means making pollution.” Alone, it accounts for 5% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, and 80% of it is being produced and used in emerging markets.  China alone uses slightly less than half the total cement.

Thus, as a leading cement supplier, Cemex can build its reputation by playing a leading role in inspiring collaboration, thought leadership and innovation in climate-smart practices.  In this case, Cemex brought together architects, standards bodies, concrete scientists (read more about the concrete lab at MIT here) as well as Cemex’s senior management.

Events like this not only help build a business’ reputation, but it also helps them keep up to date on innovations in the pipeline and to monitor potential regulatory (or other) risks more systematically.

This post also appears on the Glasshouse Partnership blog.

Climate change, politics and food security

Back in 2009, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize in Economics for their work on economic governance.  Ostrom was noted for her research on how the “tragedy of the commons” could be overcome through cooperative management from those who use these common resources (e.g. fish stocks, pasture land, ground water).  Williamson, in a different vein, was lauded for his theoretical work on how businesses themselves, in certain situations, are better placed to resolve conflicts of interest internally rather than through the market itself (i.e. to make it rather than source it). (Read the Nobel Prize press release if you’d like to learn more).

In the context of climate change, Ostrom’s and Williamson’s research is particularly insightful.  If Ostrom’s research is to be believed, it lends hope to the possibility that the world’s leaders can find an adequate solution for addressing the effects of climate change — both in terms of adapting to the changes we are already experiencing as well as mitigating future climate change.  Williamson’s theory forces us to ask which types of institutional arrangements (e.g. within businesses, between businesses, between businesses and consumers, via government regulation, etc) would be most likely to produce a climate-smart solution.

This year’s negotiations have already been written off by many media and policy pundits (read BBCICTSDXinhua or Sky News to name only a few).  The Kyoto Protocol, the current international climate agreement whose successor is being debated now, is set to expire in 2012.  Thus, climate negotiators have one more year to find a replacement solution (the 2011 negotiation will be hosted by South Africa.)

But many businesses and countries are not waiting around for a global agreement. Rather, they are passing laws domestically to address their perceived needs. (Read this recent Reuters article for examples of what they are doing.)  And the emerging economies, especially China, are playing ever more important roles as power brokers within the negotiations.  And as competitors for the next generation of green technologies. Also, businesses are coming together to either call for better dialogue with regulators or to demand further investment in green growth.

Climate change presents several unique challenges: its scale as a “common good” is unparalleled; the distribution of its impacts is not shared equitably; its future impacts can only be estimated rather than calculated.  However, it seems that Ostrom’s and Williamson’s Nobel Prize-winning work may shed some answers in how climate solutions may be refined and who may be involved in finding a potential solution.

For businesses, the necessary incentive could come from reduced costs to their supply chain, improved risk management (e.g. of accessing key resources or markets) or potential reputational gains in the eyes of key stakeholders.

This blog post also appears on the Glasshouse Partnership blog.

My Letter to the FT on the Complexity of Food Security

One of the realities of working in corporate communications is that the lionshare of our time is spent reading, thinking and writing on behalf of our clients, and we are left with little time to write things in our own names.

But since much of my time these days is spent thinking about agriculture (from a variety of perspectives) on behalf of my clients, it struck me when two “food security” articles appeared in the Financial Times on the same day, one highlighting a surge in global cereal stocks and the other lamenting a serious famine in the West African country of Niger.

Below is the resulting letter to the editor, published in today’s FT (or read it here online).  It alludes to two interesting pieces of client work in which I am currently involved.  The first is the Farming First coalition which advocates for a farmer-centric, science-based set of solutions for sustainable agriculture; the second is a sub-Saharan African seed security initiative being implemented by the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) – which also received coverage in the Guardian recently.

– – – –

(from the May 14 edition)

Sir, Two FT articles highlight how complex, and often befuddling, the issue of food security can be to manage. On one side, Javier Blas reports the US Department of Agriculture’s claim that “surging [cereal] production has … allayed recent concerns about the world’s ability to meet rising food, feed and fuel needs” (“Crop stocks set to rise for third year in a row”, May 12).

On the other side, Tom Burgis reports from Niger of “a food crisis spanning the Sahel” due to “high prices and lack of rain” (“Niger is on brink of food shortages”, May 12).

Whether it be food surge or food shortage, what these articles reveal is that food security at the global level is about much more than food availability. It is about local access to inputs and information as well as a set of policies that reflects farmers’ needs first. For example, the Southern African Development Community is piloting an innovative scheme to harmonise the seed regulatory systems in Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe so farmers can access quality seeds more reliably and at a lower cost.

Food security is about production, but it is also about policies.

The End of the ‘My-Era’?

One of the most prolific social and etymological phenomena of the last decade has been the rise of the ‘my-word’. Companies like MySpace, MyYahoo, MyHotel, and yes, even MySushi (down the block from my office) all catered to the consumer who was looking for a unique, customised experience.

The demands of a maturing capitalist economy have prodded more sophisticated marketers to tailor their messaging to an ‘audience of one’, instead of to the larger homogeneous demographic segments which consumer research used to try to capture.

This demand has conveniently been met by the proliferation of internet-based research tools and management systems which can collect and sort huge amounts of information. For instance, people can now personalize their Nikes, or they browse books on Amazon which correspond to the past purchases they’ve made.

A lot of these trends are for the better. Who doesn’t like to have to their every need or whim satisfied after all? Everyone from development advocates to luxury fashion houses push for our rights to access andenjoy a greater set of freedoms.

But at what stage do the privileges of the individual begin to be outweighed by the responsibilites we share as a group? Where does the ‘my-right’ of a smoker become less important than the ‘our-right’ of those wanting to drink in a smoke-free bar? The ‘my-right’ of a person wanting to gorge on unhealthy food without exercise rather than the ‘our-right’ to not have to pay higher taxes into the public healthcare system? The ‘my-right’ of someone listening to music on the bus compared to the ‘our-right’ of not having to listen to bad hip hop music on our morning commutes?

It seems that every community has a different threshold for where this equilibrium is drawn. When I was in China, I was dumbfounded at how insignificantly society as a whole valued individual’s wishes. In England, on the other hand, I am equally amazed at how assertively people demand their individual benefits and personal space at the expense of what I would consider a friendly, more open culture.

There is a whole class of goods which cannot and should not be regulated by the ‘my-era’ population. And will this generation of people be able to pull away from their own interests long enough to think about the common good (or, even better, of the interests of those not yet born)?

Take a look at these night satellite images of Europe and the USA from space and then imagine that the global population is expected to from 6 billion to 9 billion by the year 2050.

It isn’t easy to bridge the gap between the competing forces of a self-indulgent culture focused on the individual and the restrictive collective action we need to oversee. Personally, I think government needs to make sure industries are effectively monitoring themselves or else be empowered to put more strict regulations in place.

The recent dismissal of a criminal charges being brought against six Greenpeace activists who defamed a coal-fired power plant in the UK shows one instance where the tide may be changing. According to an article in the Guardian, Greenpeace argued that the collective damage being done to property around the world (i.e. the environment as a whole) as a result of the individual power station provided them a ‘lawful excuse’ for what they did.

Ironically, I think it will still take the directed action of certain individuals to drive this new wave of collective action forward at first.  Also, the questions remains whether this will be seen as a ‘my-era’ or whether it is actually a ‘my-generation’.