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Dixon J, Garrity D, Boffa J-M, Auricht C, Mburathi G. 2013. Unpacking sustainable intensification in Africa: differentiation and complexity. Proceedings of Fourth Farming Systems Design Conference, 19-22 August, Lanzhou, China.



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Fourth Farming Systems Design Conference, August 2013, Lanzhou, China
Unpacking sustainable intensification in Africa: differentiation and complexity
Authors & affiliations:
John Dixon, Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Canberra, Australia
Dennis Garrity, World Agroforestry Centre, Nairobi, Kenya
Jean-Marc Boffa, Institute of Earth Systems, University of Malta, Malta
Chris Auricht, Auricht Projects, Brighton, South Australia
George Mburathi, Nairobi, Kenya
Abstract: (Your abstract must use Normal style and must fit in this box. Your abstract should be no longer than 1000 words. The box will
‘expand’ over 2 pages as you add text/diagrams into it.)
With six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world, Africa is at a tipping point. Yet three
frequently observed characteristics of growth raise concerns: the persistence of poverty, especially in
rural areas; lagging growth in smallholder farming, while agricultural growth has historically underpinned
sustained national economic progress in most countries; and environmental degradation i
n dynamic
farming areas. As FAO maintains, economic growth is necessary but not sufficient to reduce poverty
and food insecurity.
Because most poor rural households depend on agriculture and related activities for much of their
livelihoods the sustainable intensification of agriculture is essential to achieve national food security and
poverty reduction goals, However, in many cases progress towards sustainable intensification is located
alongside agricultural stagnation and land degradation.
This puzzle can be better understood through the lens of farming systems. Smallholders have multiple
goals and manage complex systems, with interdependent crops, livestock, trees and other enterprises.
The 2001 Dixon et al. World Bank and FAO farming systems and poverty analysis is being updated for
sub-Saharan Africa. In the update, thirteen broad farming systems capture much of the heterogeneity of
African landscapes. Clearly, the production potentials, resource pressures and intensification pathways
vary across the different farming systems, as do the trade-offs between food security, livelihoods and
adaptation to climate change. This paper focuses on five of these systems which contain around 70
percent of the African rural poor.
The relative importance of poverty escape pathways varies across farming systems (Table 1 provides
preliminary assessments). These differences in pathways should be reflected in the design of
sustainable intensification research programs and policies. For example, it is expected that farm growth
will generate less poverty reduction than intensification or diversification of the existing enterprise
pattern; in contrast, farm growth as a determinant of poverty reduction is twice as important in the Cereal
Root Crop System than in the Maize Mixed System.
Experience has shown that policy making must be better grounded in context-specific analysis, and
complemented by innovative ways of thinking about future pathways for agricultural development. With
extremely high population densities and high development potential, the Highland Perennial Farming
System has been a natural experiment in the interaction between population growth, declining farm
sizes, and the intensification of farming systems.
Table 1. Relative importance of household strategies for poverty reduction by 2020 in the five most
densely populated farming systems of Sub-Saharan Africa
Farming Systems
farm size
Increased off-
farm income
Exit from
Highland Perennial
Fourth Farming Systems Design Conference, August 2013, Lanzhou, China
Cereal Root Crop
Highland Mixed
Note: Preliminary assessments. Relative importance scale from 0 unimportant to 5 major importance
The Maize-Mixed Farming System is the most populous and poorest African farming system
. It is a
potential food basket with good opportunities for diversification, and can be a driver of agricultural growth
and food security in Eastern and Southern Africa. The overall challenge of reducing hunger and poverty
in this system demands strategic, inter-linked initiatives aimed at improving access to agricultural
resources, smallholder competitiveness and household risk management.
A similar system, the Cereal-Root Crop Mixed Farming System, is considered to have one of the highest
agricultural growth potentials in Africa, through expansion of cropping area, mechanization, and
improved crop and livestock productivity. The development of the system will benefit from sustainable
and efficient labour-saving patterns of resource management such as
conservation agriculture to
address current land degradation, and promotion of smallholder-led commercialization, along with the
reduction of deficiencies in transport, processing, and storage infrastructure.
Challenges experienced in the Highland Mixed Farming System, the largest part of which occurs in
Ethiopia’s highlands, include high population density and declining land per capita, fragmented and
eroded farms, insecure land tenure, and poor market infrastructure. Yet, this system represents an
agricultural growth pole for this country and is supported by a strong policy environment, and the
availability of improved crop and livestock technologies. An important investment priority lies in the
development of private-sector commercial agriculture supported by improved road connectivity, and
input markets.
Local livelihoods in the Agro-Pastoral Farming System have adapted to rainfall variability, low ecosystem
productivity and economic risks. Strategies to cope have included labour mobility, diversification of
activities and income, intensification, and collective resource management. Strategic priorities should
aim to enhance adaptation capacities and food security, focusing on integrated, multi-scale participatory
approaches, flexible tenure regimes, agro-ecological intensification, locally adapted information systems,
and government support for the supply of agricultural services.
Across farming systems, the drastic reduction in arable land availability resulting from the rural
population explosion requires a shift of household priorities from large families, as a labour reserve, to
education of children for maximizing income from off-farm employment. Pro-
active policies for
moderating overly-rapid population growth in culturally-sensitive ways are an imperative in achieving
food security goals at both household and national levels. Reversing the trend of soil fertility depletion in
all farming systems has become a major development policy issue. Because of rapid urbanization, the
greatest growth potential in markets is in domestic and regional markets, linking urban centres and
surrounding hinterlands. Enhancing these markets and removing barriers to intra-regional trade will drive
both the intensification and diversification of farming systems.
Recognizing path dependency of
livelihood and farming systems’ evolution and the local effects of interacting poverty escape pathways
help design effective interventions and locally-relevant policies.
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