Some good news from Africa: Burkina Faso's farming miracle

burkina agJust been reading ‘Helping Africa to Feed Itself: Promoting Agriculture to Reduce Poverty and Hunger’, a paper by Steve Wiggins and Henri Leturque, both of the ODI. It’s a brilliant and to my mind, very fair overview, with one of its main messages being that regional generalizations about Africa are usually misleading – some subregions of Africa (eg West and North) have actually done very well in producing food and feeding their populations (not always the same thing), while others (e.g. southern Africa) have bombed. One box particularly jumped out – on the extraordinary success of Burkina Faso. “The statistics are remarkable. Since the early 1960s output in cereals in Burkina has grown at an annual average of 3.5% a year, well ahead of population growth, a rate that matches that of Vietnam (see chart).

Production of rice in Vietnam and cereals in Burkina Faso, 1961/65 to 2001/05
Production of rice in Vietnam and cereals in Burkina Faso, 1961/65 to 2001/05
How has this generally unheralded success been achieved? In the 1960s the central plateau of Burkina was an area of average rainfall in the range 500–700mm, poor soils, and yields of cereals — mainly millet and sorghum — of just 500kg/ha. With such meagre resources, many of the able-bodied young men migrated to find better work, often to Côte d’Ivoire and other countries to the south. But since then field surveys reveal the following changes:
Soil and water have been conserved, most notably by use of stone bunds and improved traditional planting pits (‘zai’) to retain water and topsoil; Trees have been planted, livestock have been kept in semi-intensive systems and the manure gathered and applied to the fields; and, Collective institutions to manage wells, natural resources, village cereal banks and schools have multiplied. Hans Binswanger-Mkhize (2009) comments: ‘The change is visible to the naked eye: On [my] recent visit … crops looked greener and healthier than [I] had ever seen them before, crop livestock integration had happened in many parts, degraded arid lands were being recuperated via traditional and new techniques, and a number of new crop varieties had been introduced, there were more trees on the land. These changes have not been revolutionary, but rather evolutionary: they draw mainly on local knowledge and organisation, facilitated and assisted by government, donors and NGOs. The results can be seen in the national statistics, but there is local detail as well. In Bam province, millet and sorghum yields rose from 406 and 446kg/ha respectively in 1984/88 to 662 and 669kg/ha in 1996/00. Water levels in wells have risen in areas that have conserved soil and water. More greenery is evident in aerial surveys. Migration is still common, but less so than in the past. Above all, rural poverty has fallen.’” So what? At the very least, see what one country or region can learn from the successes of another within Africa, before trying to import new models wholesale from very different contexts in other continents.]]>

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4 Responses to “Some good news from Africa: Burkina Faso's farming miracle”
  1. John Magrath

    It’s great and very timely that this is being (re)discovered now – before ODI by IFPRI.See Though it’s been reported on before, the further time elapsed gives a more confident sense of stability in what has happened. Growing global awareness of climate change and need to adapt also makes this a compelling narrative. It’s nice that Oxfam was involved from 25 years ago (see Paul Harrinson’s books and also and also The satellite photos of what’s heppened also in Niger are particularly striking, see Reij makes a very interesting case: “The general consensus is that Africa’s drylands continue to degrade and that the large sums of money invested in
    agriculture and natural resource management during the last 30 years have produced little or no impact. Some recent
    studies in Burkina Faso2 and Niger show a very different picture. One reason why impacts of investments are
    underestimated is that we do not adequately measure impacts. When economists calculate the costs and benefits of
    investments in soil and water conservation they tend to limit the benefits to impacts on crop yields and ignore, for
    instance, impacts on groundwater recharge and on vegetation. If such impacts would also be expressed in monetary terms
    then the cost-benefit calculations would change dramatically.
    “This farmer-managed natural regeneration is not spread evenly. It is strongest in the regions with higher population densities. This positive change
    (more people, more trees) seems to have been largely unobserved”.

  2. Claudia Bjørgum

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. This is it, man, this is how things must go. No Monsanto, nor Gates interference. It makes me so happy to read this. That is the model. (My thesis shows experiences like those in semiarid NE Brazil and my case study is as touching as those).
    As you mentioned, I hate regional generalizations about Africa and Latin America. It hurts. When is people going to see there are huge differences between everyone of those countries, serious difference, it is a shame.