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International Sustainability: Natural Resources and Biodiversity - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:58 pm on 4th November 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 4:58 pm, 4th November 2019

My Lords, I want to talk about the importance of improved smallholder agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa has a current population of 1 billion, which is due to grow to 2 billion by 2050. That is not sustainable. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, and support his plea for an open debate on family planning, which is hard in Africa when your nearest clinic may be 40, 50 or 60 miles away and you do not even have a bicycle to get there.

Africa is also where 70% of the population depend for their livelihoods—even their lives—on agriculture, where 70% of farmers are women and where every woman farmer you meet who has learned to make money from her holding will spend it on educating her children. That is sustainable development. I have mentioned this story before in the House, but I once met an old lady in Kenya who had a four-acre smallholding and was employing five families on it. I asked her, “What did you do with the money after you learned to make a profit?” I knew what the answer was going to be, but she replied, “I educated my children”. I come to the important question: “What are your children doing now?” “Well, my son is an airline pilot and my daughter is teaching IT skills in India prior to coming home”. I thought to myself, “Yes”, and that result is from just four acres. It is the way forward for Africa.

The World Bank has said that money invested in agriculture in Africa takes three or four times the number of people out of poverty than money invested in other businesses. African agriculture needs investment and could bring huge rewards in terms of kick-starting a much bigger economy, but there are problems. The first is infrastructure in the form of better mobile connectivity for weather reports, market reports and prices, and even technical advice. You send a picture of a plant and a message will come back saying what is wrong with it along with what action you might need to take. Farmers need better roads for getting seed and fertiliser in and the harvested crop out. Better power is required to process crops locally in order to avoid the huge post-harvest losses prevalent in Africa. However, most countries have no national grid, so as has already been mentioned, village solar power for batteries is the obvious answer. That also helps kids to do their homework and people to engage in other nocturnal activities which at the moment cannot take place.

Another need is security of tenure on the land. Many farmers have only loose tenancies from a local chief whose ownership of the land is probably not even registered. It is a mess, but I am pleased to say that DfID is now doing a lot of good work in this area. Without security of tenure, it is difficult to invest. Why would you spend four years’ worth of your farming income on drilling a borehole when you could easily then lose your land? Indeed, why would you borrow money if only 40% interest rates are available? It makes no sense at all. Donors like DfID should guarantee loans to farmers at interest rates of less than 15%. Various UN pilot schemes have been run in this area which have worked well.

One of the things a farmer might want to spend money on is water, because that could quadruple the output of the farm. However, African rains come all at once, so mini reservoirs make sense. Africa is also full of aquifers which are hardly tapped at all. The West needs to help by spending money on analysing the quantity and quality of these aquifers to ensure that the water is used sustainably, unlike what is happening in India and China. Africa uses only around 2% of its annual rainfall, which is a tiny proportion. Parts of Asia use 40%-plus, while obviously in the Middle East the proportion is much higher than that. By far the most urgent need in this area is to help farmers borrow money in order to put in communal irrigation schemes. I am talking about helping them and not necessarily paying for the schemes because they deliver a good financial reward if farmers can get hold of the money.

That brings me to the greatest need for African agriculture, which is knowledge. We must invest in agricultural training colleges which have to be open to women. We must ensure that women farmers can get training on their farms, and we must encourage the private sector to assist in training. I cite as an example of the latter a visit I made a few years ago to a Diageo brewery in Addis Ababa which had started training farmers to grow the barley needed to make its beer to the spec it wanted. The brewery started with a few hundred farmers, but when I visited, it had 3,000 farmers and intended to expand that number to 15,000 to 20,000. Those farmers were making money and educating their children.

Now, of all the natural resources that need sustaining in Africa it is the soil. The Malabo Montpellier Panel has calculated that the economic loss from soil degradation in sub-Saharan Africa is worth $68 billion per annum—I repeat: per annum—affecting 180 million people. Women farmers need to know how to manage the soil, how to rotate crops and how to plant without losing moisture. Soils are a long-term business, but it is hard to think about future food when you are desperate for food today and you have no understanding about crop rotations or organic matter. There is no doubt in my mind that min-till—or, better, nil-till—is the answer. The moment you turn the soil and have brown earth, you can see the organic matter turning to dust. I have seen this; it just floats away in the lightest of breezes.

The other problem is that the soils get too hot, 30 degrees or more. One solution is to use the debris from the previous crop—the leaves and stems of maize, for instance—to cover and shade the soil. You open the debris in lines to plant the seed but leave it elsewhere in the field to cool the soil, conserve moisture and, eventually, provide organic matter when it breaks down.

In west Africa, I have come across an even better system: nitrogen-fixing trees. There are two varieties. The trees shade the soil at the same time as enriching it with nitrogen. You plant the seed just before it rains—it is vital to have that incredibly useful weather information on your phone—and then, when it does rain, these trees miraculously drop all their leaves, leaving the fields basking in open sunlight to kick-start the growth of the crop, before regrowing their leaves after a few months to give the welcome shade.

In conclusion—moving from field back to politics—first, we have to get all Governments to wake up and recognise the opportunities and problems here. All African Governments must fulfil their Maputo commitments to put 10% of their GDP into agriculture; of the 57 African states, I think only seven or eight currently do so. Sound, profitable agriculture can transform lives—I have seen it in reality. Secondly, we must put more money into training in agriculture and the basics of running a business, including soil management. Thirdly, we must incentivise a long-term approach by granting legal security of tenure. It can be done by tenancies as well as land registration, and I am pleased to say that DfID is already doing wonders here. Fourthly and lastly, we must help build the research capacity in Africa itself and the means of getting that knowledge to the farmers. There is a lot to be done, but the rewards are huge.