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Permaculture Africa: Feeding The Farmers First

Poverty in many rural African villages is extreme. Up to half of the children in these villages are still suffering from stunting and malnutrition. Soil degradation and poor crop yields are ubiquitous. Fifty years of projects run by donor and government groups aimed at the rural poor in Africa have had very little impact. What is having an impact are some small projects aimed at growing more food for the household.

The reason the majority of projects that deal with food security in rural Africa have been failing is because they are all commercial projects. They follow the idea that subsistence farming must be replaced by commercial farming for development to go ahead.

In reality, on the land available to these villagers, commercial crops are rarely worth much. The most sensible strategy for these smallholder families is to intensify their production of food crops for home consumption and to sell only the surplus that is produced after all their food needs have been met. I call this ‘feeding the farmers first’.

The only kind of projects that can make a dent on the problems of rural food security are those that embody some version of the feeding the farmers first strategy. My research has discovered three isolated local NGOs in Uganda (KULIKA), South Africa (Is’Baya) and Zimbabwe (TSURO) that have developed projects of this kind and have been successful.

A Permaculture Property In Zimbabwe

Gladys, aged 50, has been to numerous workshops run by TSURO. She practices permaculture design techniques and has prepared a map of her 2.5 ha property. She keeps a record of spending on her crops and her returns when she sells some of her produce. There is integration of cropping designed to make money, and cropping designed to feed her family.

The plots above the house are for the herbs she is growing for sale. Chickens are free ranging near the house, and immediately below the house is a belt of fruit trees. She is also keeping some goats, which are being raised for sale and for milking. Below the orchard is the vegetable patch, which includes a variety of herbs and medicinal plants as well as various legumes. She grows maize, sorghum and various intercrops. It is a complex and diverse garden. Mostly, this plot is for home consumption.

Fruit Trees For Extra Income

The central strategy of the Is’Baya organisation in South Africa is to offer fruit tree seedlings to householders to plant on their own residential land. These residential plots are generally used for grazing a goat or sheep and for growing a small quantity of maize for family consumption. The aim of the project is to supplement this current agriculture by providing families with abundant fruit. The project sells the trees at a subsidised price and provides advice on how to establish and care for them.

They distribute varieties that will produce marketable fruit to allow a small additional income even with a few fruit trees. While villagers may enter this project aiming to make an income, the most immediate effect is to greatly increase the nutritional value of food grown for household consumption.

How The NGOs Are Helping

Projects like this attempt first to increase the household food provision for the poorest farmers using the materials they already have. They also promise a surplus, and with that, an increasing ability to purchase inputs for their farm which will help them build a top-level commercial farm, breaking through the stigma associated with subsistence.

KULIKA, Is’Baya and TSURO make food security through household production their priority. At the same time, beneficiaries are encouraged to believe that the methods suggested will produce a surplus for sale, over and above what the family needs for its own food security. The key agricultural strategy is mixed farming with a minimal use of purchased inputs.

This is an adapted excerpt from Terry Leahy’s book Food Security for Rural Africa: Feeding the Farmers First (Routledge 2018), available in hardcover and on Kindle through Amazon. This book is a must read for anyone planning to work in the rural areas of Africa.


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