Joris Tielens

8 december 2020


Technically it is possible for many African farmers to triple yields, tells Professor Ken Giller in this interview. And this could make a major impact in providing food security for African nations. But many small-scale farmers have tiny plots and are stuck in poverty – unable to benefit from available technologies. Changing that needs a broad approach that should be led by Africans. ‘Aid and trade, or involving Dutch business in development, doesn’t solve the problem of hunger and poverty.’

It is not in his character to be downhearted, yet Ken Giller does feel a bit frustrated. Like many of us he is bored of staring at a screen. Due to the corona pandemic, he can’t be on the road to visit the farmers and researchers in Africa as often as he used to: almost once a month. But he is also frustrated because after all these years it is still so difficult to solve the problems of hunger and poverty in Africa, or as he called it in a recent scientific paper, ‘the Food Security Conundrum of sub-Saharan Africa’. Giller calls the paper the ‘culmination of my frustration’.

‘I have been working for the last 35 years in Africa, across 16 different countries. And I have seen fantastic examples of promising local innovations. Together with farmers, we have been able to boost yields and develop more sustainable production systems. We often had a wonderful dynamic in the field. And yet the situation as a whole doesn’t take off in the way you would hope.’

professor Ken Giller

Giller, born in the UK, is a plant ecologist by training. He worked as a professor at Wye College, University of London, before becoming professor of Soil Science at the University of Zimbabwe, and arrived in Wageningen in 2001 after being appointed professor of Plant Production Systems. His work focuses on making the best use of biology in agriculture. A nice example is how some plants improve the fertility of the soil. Legumes such as beans, groundnut and cowpeas have the ability to capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into protein as food and in the leaves that fall and increase the fertility of the soil.

For the past 10 years, Giller has led the N2Africa programme that applies this principle in the fields of 660,000 farmers in 11 countries, financed to the tune of USD 50 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. ‘I call it intensification through diversification. Farmers move away from monocropping cereals and do more intercropping and crop rotation with legumes. This increases the yield, provides more nutritious foods, and brings a better income and an environmentally sound way of farming.’

Technically it is possible to triple or quadruple yields in many situations, Giller says. ‘We know how to do that. And I have seen it happening time and time again in farmers’ fields. And yet overall hunger is on the increase.’ The situation is serious, Giller confirms. ‘Africa is not food sufficient and relies heavily on food imports. The population is increasing rapidly and any improvement in agricultural productivity, which is there, seems to be locked up in the continuing population increase. Wherever you are in Africa, there are so many children. And that is a double-edged sword.’ The huge labour force of young people that are increasingly well educated is full of potential, he says, but on the other hand economies are not developing fast enough to absorb all of these people into constructive work, and agriculture is not developing fast enough to feed all these people. Unemployment is massive, and it is no wonder that many young people, in the absence of any opportunity, look for better chances elsewhere, Giller says.

What is your diagnosis of the food security conundrum?

‘Why there is still hunger in Africa is a complex matter. On the one hand, at a national level the growing population needs to be fed. So affordable nutritious food is needed. On the other hand, exports from agriculture are also required for the balance of payments, given that Africa relies on imports of food and energy. Another factor is the fragmentation of land. Many small-scale farmers have tiny plots of land, often less than one hectare. The climate is seasonal, with only one crop a year. It is very hard for millions of smallholders to produce enough food for themselves, with a family of five or six, added to the fact that it’s really difficult to make a living out of farming anyway. It is very unlikely that they have the money to invest in farming to increase yield and turn their farms into an economically viable business. Their attention is elsewhere. Farmers want their children to be educated so that they can get a steady salary. They want their kids to be teachers, doctors and nurses, away from the risky job of farming. But for millions of smallholders, agriculture is the only way to provide food security for their families.’

What to do?

‘There is no single answer to this. Africa is such a huge and diverse continent. There are so many cultures, climates, soils and farming systems and governments – to come up with one-liners and simple solutions is really not of any help. The complexity is great. But a huge shift in policy is required to make smallholder agriculture profitable while keeping the urban population well fed.’

Giller was inspired when he read the biography of Sicco Mansholt by Johan van Merrienboer. Mansholt was a socialist minister for agriculture in the 1950s in the Netherlands and later the architect of the common agricultural policy of the EU. The Mansholt Plan reformed agriculture in the Netherlands in the wake of the ‘hunger winter’ at the end of World War II. It combined policies to consolidate fragmented farmland, modernise agriculture and promote the use of new technologies, and introduced tariffs and price support to provide a living income for farmers. Through other policies small, unviable farms were encouraged to quit farming. Giller: ‘The aim was to drive inefficient farmers out of business by creating employment elsewhere, and on the other hand create opportunities for farmers who wanted to stay in farming and support them to make a living income. Such a package would be needed in African countries as well. The situation in Africa is very different from Europe in the 1950s, but a major policy change is needed.’

Is Dutch policy for food security in developing countries doing the right thing? 

‘I feel very uneasy with the ‘trade not aid’ policy. The current Dutch policy is to push a lot of development assistance towards helping Dutch companies with opportunities in developing country markets. I agree that getting the market going is needed for the economy to grow. Dutch companies like East-West Seed or Rijk Zwaan have wonderful technology and they do a great job in bringing that to Africa and have invested heavily in Africa. But it is just one part of the picture and it does not directly address the issues of hunger and poverty. We need a multi-pronged approach. One aspect is getting the market going, but at the same time social welfare programmes or social safety nets are needed to address poverty. And investments in better and healthy food for people in rural areas. We need vibrant rural areas where people choose to stay on the land and have a better life. That needs investments in services like schools and health care in rural areas.’

‘When I first moved to the Netherlands 20 years ago, the national policy focused firmly on what we call untied aid. Aid was for development and wasn’t meant for Dutch parties to benefit. We had many procedures in place to ensure that there was no nepotism in the system. Now there is a completely different ethos, through which the aid budget is used to boost the Dutch economy. Of course there can be synergies, but we have to be realistic. We need a blend where funds are also invested in issues like rural poverty and nutrition for the poor, which are not directly addressed through ‘top sector’ projects.’

Do we need more development assistance?

‘Obviously there is the need for development assistance, up to the internationally agreed norm of 0.7% of GNP. If invested wisely, development assistance can solve so many problems that are better solved pro-actively than retrospectively. And it is clear that we can easily afford it. There is such an enormous difference in wealth between the Netherlands and African countries. It never ceases to amaze me when we cycle along a tiny remote rural road that has just been resurfaced here in the Netherlands, and that road is in much better condition than the main highway between two major cities in Africa. The amount of investment needed in infrastructure in Africa is colossal.’

Some say the answer is a Marshall Plan-like investment by Europe in African agriculture…

‘For me the Marshall Plan smacks of external influence, yet the initiative has to come from African countries themselves. This is not something we can cook up here in Wageningen, The Hague, London or Brussels. We can work together with people who seize opportunities and support that with development assistance both through knowledge and finance. But it has to be African led. I don’t believe in a grand interventionist approach, but rather in a diversified bottom-up approach that is tailored to the local realities.’

‘The same goes for the type of agricultural production system that fits best in Africa. On the one hand, there are large international initiatives pushing for ‘sustainable intensification’ using new crop varieties, fertiliser and agro-chemicals. On the other hand, many external parties push for organic or agroecological agriculture. But I think we should not impose our views on governments or farmers in Africa. It is up to them to decide. And there is a middle ground, using inputs efficiently and agrochemicals sparsely. I make an exception for fertiliser: on many old depleted soils in Africa it is simply impossible to have an efficient and effective agriculture without using fertiliser.’

‘We have to separate our ideology from action. There is no place for dogma in development. It is not up to us to say to Africans do this or that. We need to be open and flexible and respond to local needs, and not push a very European perspective on others. At the moment I see very often that ideologies or opinions developed in Europe are parachuted onto people in developing countries. And that is absolutely the wrong way to go. We need to be of service to these people in our work, in a good collaborative way.’ Giller is an advocate of equal partnerships in research, with African researchers in the lead, as described in his recent paper Grounding the helicopters.

What is the role of research institutes like Wageningen University and Research?

‘I am proud to be part of WUR, it has a fantastic breadth and depth of science and understanding that we can contribute. I see my own role as one of contributing through capacity building. To ensure that people can own their own problems. We are in a supportive role, not in the driving seat. In a way that we are listening and engaging with partners and not pushing our own agendas.’

‘And I love it. I have supervised almost 100 PhD students, of which nearly half from Africa. And I continue to work with many of them now. Many became professors or director of institutes in an important role. For me that is the most important outcome of what Wageningen is able to do. To build that capacity of people from all around the world to own their own problems and solutions. That is a much more lasting contribution than exporting technology.’

In the autumn of 2020, Vice Versa publishes a series of articles on transforming African food systems to provide sufficient and healthy food to the growing population, while at the same time generating income and employment for the increasing number of young people. Our aim is to generate debate on this important topic within the Dutch international cooperation sector, running up to the parliamentary elections in March 2021.
The series is an initiative of Vice Versa in cooperation with Solidaridad, IDH Sustainable trade, Wageningen University & Research and the Food & Business Knowledge Platform and AgriProFocus, merging into the Netherlands Food Partnership this year

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