An Integrated Approach to Sustainable Food Production

May 29, 2013

Staple crops can provide much more than just subsistence for smallholder farmers. These crops can provide income, create jobs and improve food security for people living in the poorest places.

This post originally appeared on On Balance, a World Wildlife Fund blog.

Eshetu Abote, a member of the Shegole coffee farming cooperative in western Ethiopia, crouches near his maize crop.

As Eshetu Abote, a member of the Shegole coffee farming cooperative in western Ethiopia, crouches near his maize (corn) crop, the difference is apparent. The shorter plants – cultivated using traditional methods – barely reach his shoulder. The taller plants have benefited from training given during monthly sessions supported by TechnoServe’s team, which is also helping the farmer with his coffee.

The better maize was intercropped with beans, which provide nitrogen to the soil. The plot was weeded regularly and fertilizer was applied in limited amounts at the bottom of the stalks in appropriately spaced holes. These measures have helped boost productivity on the demonstration plot, where local farmers see firsthand the impact of their work.

“TechnoServe gave us a new technology, a new way to grow maize,” Eshetu Abote says. “If it increases our production, we will adopt and expand these practices.”

Eshetu, like other members of the cooperative, sells his coffee for income while growing maize mainly for household consumption. But productivity is low, and many farmers in the area remain net buyers of maize because of low-quality seeds, nutrient-deficient soil and poor pest and disease management.

As part of the Coffee Initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Eshetu and thousands of other Ethiopian farmers are learning farming and business skills that will help them increase production of both food and cash crops. TechnoServe believes that a successful farm should be an integrated and diversified system, where multiple crops help to ensure food security, maximize income and manage risk.

Many smallholder farmers grow staple crops such as maize, rice and beans for subsistence. But with higher productivity, a business mindset and an accessible market, these crops can offer an opportunity to increase incomes as well. As we focus on improving practices at the farm level, we are also promoting improved business models across entire sectors – from the field to the end consumer. For example:

  • In Mozambique, with support from the Dutch Government, we are working to transform the seed system by empowering local entrepreneurs and small-scale commercial farmers. This effort will help 3 million smallholder farmers to determine the right cropping and production strategy for their circumstances.
  • With support from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), TechnoServe is helping to build a sustainable warehouse system that gives farmers a choice to sell or store their crops. Our efforts will assist 20,000 smallholder maize and rice farmers in Tanzania to reduce their post-harvest losses and operate their farms as a business.
  • TechnoServe is working with Partners in Food Solutions – a nonprofit that draws on the expertise of volunteers from General Mills, Cargill, DSM and Bühler – and the U.S. Agency for International Development across several African countries to strengthen the food processing industry, a critical market for smallholder-grown staple crops.

These efforts show that by linking staple crops to their market systems – both on the input and the output sides – they can provide much more than just subsistence for smallholder farmers. When the entire market system is strengthened, these crops can provide income, create jobs and improve food security for families and their communities.