Africa's no-till revolution

Africa's no-till revolution

Sustainable, integrated cropping systems are boosting yields and building food security for smallholder African farmers

In a quiet rural corner of Ghana, near the humble village of Amanchia near Kumasi, Dr. Kofi Boa goes about revolutionizing food production in Africa, one farmer at a time.

"It is my dream that the whole of Africa will know how to sustain the productivity of a piece of land," says Boa, speaking to a group of seed growers who have flown in from several countries to learn his techniques at the No-Till Centre he opened here two years ago. The Centre is supported by a partnership between John Deere, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and DuPont Pioneer.

"It is becoming more and more important to adopt these technologies so we can grow production on the same amount of land," says Dr. Kofi Boa.

In Ghana, where agriculture makes up 60% of GDP and accounts for over a third of all employment, Dr. Boa is something of a hero. One by one he is showing farmers how traditional 'slash-and-burn' methods lead to extreme erosion and poor yields that have kept them impoverished for decades.

Instead, Boa shows farmers how a sustainable system focusing on no-till, cover crop mulch and intercropping can lift them out of self-sustenance and inject new income streams to the poorest of families.

Slash-and-burn farming today is used by upwards of 500 million farmers worldwide. With slash-and-burn farming, says Boa, many smallholder farmers could not get enough production from their farms to afford even the basics, like sending their kids to high school, which costs real money in Ghana. But with no other options and limited education, many farmers just continued the same old techniques.

Until now.

Ama Adutwumwaa saw her corn yields quadruple after she adopted no-till techniques on her small farm in Ghana.

"When we were doing slash and burn we didn't know the land was suffering," says Ama Adutwumwaa, a 33-year-old farmer who plants corn, cassava, cocoyam, cocoa and peppers. She saw her corn yields more than quadruple after her first growing season in no-till.

"I was very happy when I saw my plants emerge and start growing," she says. "Even during the dry season, the plants were still growing. It was because the land is now soft and can hold moisture."

Childhood trauma

Boa's dislike for slash-and-burn began as a child, when his mother returned to the farm in tears after the family's cocoa farm was destroyed in an accidental fire. He vowed he would become a disciple of agriculture. He became a researcher and came to the states to learn no-till methods and study the connection between soil moisture and yield.

Using Boa's technology, a smallholder farmer will use a machete to clear a field, chop the vegetative mass to small pieces, then set up plantings in rows. The machete is used to clear a small area in the mulch, slit open a hole, drop in seed and close the soil over. Crop canopy is used strategically whenever possible to shade out weeds. In some cases they intercrop smaller vegetables like tomatoes and peppers between other crops like cocoa or plantains, until the bigger crops grow too shady.

This can be scaled to fit both large and small farms, for growers with tractors or just hand tools. It is well suited to the tropics where cover crop mulch can protect fragile soils and undulating fields from harsh rainfalls. It is also well suited to smallholder farmers who can do this mainly with some cheap labor, glyphosate, a machete and a bag of seed.  Those growers no longer need to only grow food for their families; they can diversify with cash crops that will be sold to create wealth where there once was none.

In these smaller farms, farmers use the mulch and cover crops for nutrients so little commercial fertilizer is needed, at least at the beginning. (That may come along later as the system gets established, but right now you'd be hard pressed to find many soil labs in Africa anyway.) With this approach farmers are actually building soil organic matter so they can stay on that land permanently.

This is not no-till as Americans might broadly define it. It's a truly sustainable, system approach to farming where you don't waste any resource, use no tillage, minimal chemical and synthetic fertilizer – and if done right, immediately double or triple production from the old slash-and-burn methods.

The mind boggles when you consider the very idea of millions of smallholder farmers doubling and tripling food production as they adopt these methods.

If enough African farmers learn Kofi Boa's farming approach, you can be sure there will be encouraging news coming from the world's biggest, most food insecure continent.

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