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

October 25, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

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.

October 25, 2010
Duncan Green