October 15, 2013

Commentary - Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa

This commentary is part of a series organized by The Chicago Council's Global Agricultural Development Initiative and the World Food Prize to examine the relationship between biotechnology, sustainability, and climate volatility in the lead up to this year's Borlaug Dialogue.

By Sir Gordon Conway
Sir Gordon Conway is a Professor of International Development at Imperial College, London and Director of Agriculture for Impact. 

Innovation is at the heart of sustainable intensification, helping African smallholder farmers produce more with less impact on the environment while also improving agriculture’s sustainability.

Yet food production remains well below its potential in Africa. Consider these facts:

  • Africa has a quarter of the world’s arable land, but only generates 10% of global agricultural output.
  • Over 200 million Africans (nearly 23% of the population) go hungry, and the population continues to grow at around 2.5% per year on average.
  • The African population is set to double to 2 billion by 2050, and per capita incomes are beginning to rise – both of which will create extra demand for food.
  • In addition, more than 75% of total arable land in SSA is degraded with nearly 3.3% of agricultural GDP lost annually because of soil and nutrient loss.
  • Climate change is also expected to reduce cereal production levels by up to 3%, contributing to decreased food availability in the region by 500 calories per person and increasing the number of malnourished children from 33 to 52 million.

Tackling hunger, malnutrition and poverty while at the same time protecting and improving the environmental base will require human ingenuity, creativity and innovation, especially in the face of severe resource constraints and global warming. Donors and policymakers can play a key role in supporting African agricultural systems based on science and innovation.

Much can be achieved by utilising existing knowledge whether derived from other regions or from indigenous sources but because of the nature and scale of the challenges we face we also require innovation. A new paradigm for African agriculture is needed, one that can help address food and nutrition insecurity as well as spur growth, reduce poverty, create wealth, and protect the continent’s natural resources.  Sustainable Intensification (SI) offers a robust solution to this challenge as it is all about producing more outputs with more prudent use of all inputs – on a durable basis – while reducing environmental damage, minimising greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services.

What will future innovation look like?

Today the challenges we face and solutions we need are more complex than hitherto by an order of magnitude. We will need to go beyond sector silos in academia, business and government, and think more strategically and holistically about how we can cope with inter-connected issues that require integrated approaches and solutions. We need to re-think our research and innovation systems to facilitate multidisciplinary, collaborative research at a range of scales. 

Multiple benefits

We must focus not only higher yields and production and more nutritious foods, but also more selective use of inputs, reduced environmental impact, greater resilience, minimised emissions of greenhouse gases and improvements in natural capital.

Multiple partners

We must ensure all benefits are considered and that we utilise different approaches (including gender equity and balance) and partner with the public and private sectors, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and NGOs.

Multiple approaches

We must combine, often concurrently in an integrated fashion, the application of agricultural ecological processes (ecological intensification), the utilisation of modern plant and livestock breeding (genetic intensification) and socio-economic intensification, that provides an enabling environment for technological and institutional innovation and technology adoption.

Multiple scales

We must broaden our scope to include everything from the individual field, to the farm, to the community, to the watershed and to whole landscapes so that we ensure multiple benefits are fully realised.

A Future Agenda for Change

We still are far from having all the answers, but there is growing consensus on the set of questions which we should prioritise.  Itemised here are a set of observations and questions which I regard as imperatives for further research, dialogue and policy making in the coming years:

  1. We have focused on innovations that are relatively successful. How do we avoid unsustainable intensification?
  2. The culture and institutions for innovation in Africa are evolving in the right direction. But what further changes are needed?
  3. Appropriate policies in support of innovation are being developed in a number of African countries. How are they working and how do we accelerate this process?
  4. We know that innovation can come from a variety of sources – international organisations, the private sector, National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and farmers themselves. But which of these and/or their combinations are most likely to deliver not only multiple benefits but also resilience and sustainability?
  5. We know that multiple benefits can be built up on the basis of an initial innovation. Is this the best way to proceed or is it better to have multiple benefits as objectives right from the beginning of projects or programmes?
  6. We have examples of reducing costly and damaging inputs but often these may be at the expense of yield performance. What principles and practices will prevent this?
  7. Some innovations are clearly resilient, but often this arises from innovations breaking down and having to be redesigned. Other innovations will increase natural capital or reduce greenhouse gas emissions but often this appears to be serendipitous. How can we ensure these objectives are built in from the beginning and have no significant yield penalty?
  8. We have plenty of evidence that farmers are great innovators. But how can their innovations be brought to scale, to the community, district and nation?
  9. Going to scale involves an appropriate enabling environment and the participation of many stakeholders. How can this be achieved?
  10. Finally engaging in a participatory learning agenda involving African and donor governments, the private sector, NGOs and farmers themselves is a priority. How do we initiate and facilitate this?

Embracing innovation – both in existing and future forms – at the heart of African agricultural development will be essential to ensure that the momentum which the agricultural sector has felt in recent years continues to boost productivity, improve livelihoods and build sound environmental management into African rural communities in the future.

Gordon Conway’s most recent publication, “Innovation for Sustainable Intensification in Africa” was launched at the World Food Prize this week.  It is co-authored by Calestous Juma (Harvard University), Ramadjita Tabo (Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa) and Katy Wilson (Agriculture for Impact).


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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