How East Africa can gain from India’s low-cost sustainable agriculture technique

Originally published in The New Times, Rwanda here

Co-written by Sourajit Aiyer and Sonia Sharma, South Asia Fast Track Sustainability Communications

Both India and Africa face common issues like degradation to cropland and environment, deteriorating farm economics and a pressure to feed a growing (and young) population, this presents an opportunity to collaborate and share experiences.  It is particularly imperative to focus on farmers who own small-units of land, since such smallholder farmers comprise over 70% of cropland in both Africa and Asia.

In this context, a low-cost sustainable agriculture method from India that can help Africa’s farmers is Community-Managed Natural Farming or CMNF (formerly Zero Budget Natural Farming).

While some Indian states are practicing CMNF across a few districts, the state of Andhra Pradesh has made this a ‘state-wide policy’ and aims to convert all its 6 million farmers to CMNF. Incidentally, Andhra Pradesh’s CMNF programme has evinced initial interest from Africa, with Rwanda recently organising a knowledge-session on CMNF.

What does Community-Managed Natural Farming involve?

The CMNF method focuses on the concepts of regenerative agriculture (enabling the cropland to regenerate its natural nutrient cycle instead of being dependent on chemical pesticides/fertilisers and agroecology (studying the interactions between plant-types, human and environment, and its application to agriculture). Our conventional chemical-based farming system has had severe environmental and economic impact, including degradation of croplands, freshwater pollution, farmer debt and residue in crops.

CMNF is a ‘package of practices’ that strengthens the regenerative capacity and sustainability of our soil, environment and farming system.

CMNF uses low-cost inputs made from natural ingredients and bovine waste, instead of costly chemical fertilizers. Natural ingredients sourced from foods contain the sugars and proteins which micro-organisms need to thrive in the soil, while bovine waste contains a high content of beneficial micro-organisms. Chemical pesticides are replaced with natural or mechanical alternatives, including plants possessing pest-repelling qualities.

CMNF involves techniques like inter-cropping/border-cropping, i.e. sowing a combination of crops that helps protect the farmers’ income. A combination of plants also enhances the soil’s nutrient capability. As micro-organisms thrive in the soil, it enhances a food-chain of organisms, insects and birds. This soil-food-web regenerates the soil’s nutrient cycle. Multiple plants at varying heights in the same farm cushion the sunlight on the exposed soil and smaller plants, reducing moisture evaporation. The application of all these natural inputs are based on certain combinations, and this forms the ‘natural farming’ part of CMNF.

The other part of CMNF is the ‘community-managed’. Just like microfinance, CMNF is based on the social capital created by local communities and self-help groups.

 CMNF expands with knowledge-transfer. Africa and India have a large population and landmass, making it tough for a central team to execute single-handedly. Training the local communities in the CMNF practices and managerial capabilities helps them become the ‘foot-soldiers’, who then expand and supervise the programme to more villages. This institutional structure is instrumental in ensuring the knowledge-transfer quickly cascades a large landmass and population.

A quick look at CMNF’s multiple advantages!

First is cost. CMNF uses inputs that are low-cost and available locally. This reduces the cost to farm, critical for smallholder farmers. Not only does this reduce the debt burden, it also reduces the pressure of rural migration to cities in case the small farmers fail and are unable to repay their debt. In countries where the average per capita income is still low, a lower cost to farm is important.

Next is volume. Weak institutional and market linkages frameworks force smallholders to depend on middlemen to sell their produce, reducing their bargaining power on pricing. On top of that, smallholders have limited volume which reduces their bargaining power further. Now, crop-cutting experiments in CMNF farms in Andhra Pradesh showed, on an average, a productivity improvement in the crops.

Its 2019 presentation at the Centre for Science and Environment’s conclave showed a 14% rise in rice yield in sample CMNF farms vs. conventional farms during the 2018 summer crop cycle. This was 21% in maize, 34% each in groundnut and ragi (finger-millet) and 51% in sugarcane. An improvement in volume can help pricing-power, to some extent.

Improvements in cost and volume helps boost the farmers’ net income. The same 2019 presentation showed a 51% rise in the net income of rice farmers in sample CMNF farms vs. conventional farms. This was 46% in maize, 83% in groundnut, 125% in ragi and 68% in sugarcane. These are encouraging numbers!

CMNF also helps slow the damage to the environment. We have described how the process revives the natural nutrient cycle of the soil through the food-web of micro-organisms, which otherwise perished owing to the rampant use of chemicals.

Water usage also reduces as the micro-organisms make the soil more porous, enabling better absorption of rainwater, movement of organisms and nutrients, resistance to cyclones due to a deeper root-system and resistance to drought.

Health can gain. Crops produced without chemicals are free from residue, thus reducing incidents of illness. That implies lower medical bills, important in countries with a near-absence of state-sponsored social security and healthcare.

There is also a policy advantage. Africa remains a net food importer, despite being home to a young and growing population. The reduction in cropland due to degradation adds to the pressure of food security. Scaling up low-cost, sustainable agriculture may be pragmatic.

At the end, low-cost sustainable agriculture is a low-hanging fruit for diplomatic engagements.

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