By Kim Lewis*
Michigan State University, through funding from the Gates Foundation Global Development Program, says the research aims to intensify farming methods that meet the agricultural needs of Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Zambia, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Tom Jayne, professor of international development at Michigan State University, has been living in Lusaka, Zambia for the last two years, and has been involved in long-term projects to improve the sustainability of African farmland. He said one of the main goals of this project is capacity, and its relationship to previous work done by MSU. An example is Zambia.
“It’s been increasingly well known that African policymakers are I think more likely to get good policy advice, or wish to get good policy advice, from local African institutes. So we’ve been working to develop this agricultural policy institute here and I am pleased to report that as of February 9 of this year, that was the official launch of the Indaba Agricultural policy research institute, an independent, Zambian managed institute much like the Brookings Institute in the United States,” said Jayne.
Jayne emphasized the importance of capacity-building in Africa. He said he and his colleagues at the Gates Foundation lament that each year 15-20 good African PHD analysts in agriculture and economics graduate from programs around the world, but most do not return to their home countries to integrate their knowledge back into the African communities.
“What we are seeing instead, and you know these are very logical decisions that they make to do this, is that they may end up in the World Bank in Washington or IFPRI, or they may end up at Michigan State University, because the incentives of these institutions are very attractive, and they can pay much more than the University of Malawi, or the University of Zambia where they are much more constrained. So part of the systemic challenge here is how to improve the conditions at these African universities and research institutes so that it will want to attract good qualified African analysts to come and make a commitment to their institution and to their country, in a way that meets their needs at the same time,” explained Jayne.
It is well known and documented that farmers in Africa deal with extreme weather conditions, from droughts lasting for months to flooding. Jayne said farmers are noticing the palpable weather conditions.
“Here in Zambia this year right now, the rains should have been here already. But, here it is November 15th and it has only rained once or twice so far here. So the rains are late. This is an evolving pattern, more erratic rainfall, and when it does come, it comes in one or a concentrated cloud burst, with more intermittent dry spells in between,” explained Jayne, who also pointed out, “ this has important implications for the appropriateness of different farm technologies that will effectively work and adapt to climate change.
Some of this may involve conservation farming technologies, which are ways of retaining soil moisture. And the research that we are doing is looking at the extent to which adoption of these techniques is likely to improve farmers production and yields and their access to food throughout the dry season.”
The project will focus on three main staple crops – maize, sorghum and rice – to improve their response rate to fertilizer. These key crops have a significantly lower rate of growth for African farmers in comparison to the response rate for other farmers around the world. But Jayne said through tangible interaction with farmers, where they can actually see the improvement in their crops by applying new methods, they will incorporate the changes into the managing of their farms.