Finding Long-term Solutions to the Food Crisis in Africa: how can indigenous soil and water conservation techniques help build resilience?

Staff Reports

By Eugenie Maiga[i]

With the recent food crisis in the Horn of Africa and in the Sahel, calls for urgent action and sustainable solutions to food insecurity in Africa have intensified. While many factors like rising commodity prices have contributed to these crises, land degradation stands out as a main catalyst. Indigenous techniques may offer some quick wins.

The challenge of fixing the problem of degraded lands in famine prone regions is a huge one. In many parts of Africa, land degradation has already reached crisis proportions, leading to famine, land erosion, erratic rainfall, recurrent drought (particularly in East and West Africa), food insecurity, and sometimes death of the most vulnerable individuals. The 2011 crisis in the Horn of Africa is a prime example. An estimated 12 million people faced severe malnutrition in the region, while 90 percent of the livestock died. For a region whose populations engage primarily in farming and animal husbandry, this holds very strong implications.

Given how devastating the food crisis continues to be, there cannot be a more timely moment to refocus ideas and resources on fixing land degradation. To this end, modern solutions exist, such as irrigation and re-fertilization.  Governments and development partners need to deepen investment in such proven techniques and work with communities to make sure such schemes deliver sustainable results. The problem, though, is that financial resources to invest in these modern solutions are typically scarce (for both farmers and governments); and it can take painfully too long for these to come to the doorsteps of communities.

So what about solutions that already exist at the doorstep of communities? The good news is there are time-tested indigenous techniques that can be implemented on already cultivated or eroded land in need of restoration for agricultural production. Here I want to focus on two of such best known techniques: Zaï and Stone Bunds. Although they are labour-intensive, indigenous techniques like zaï and Stone Bunds can be implemented as low-cost solutions to low yields and land degradation in Africa. What exactly are they? And how do they work?

Zaï is an indigenous conservation technique that addresses both water and wind erosion. It involves the creation of holes, which serve as water and silt catching devices. A hectare of land for millet or sorghum production could have as many as 20,000-25,000 holes in order to reduce water runoff. Runoff water captured under the zaï technique increases water infiltration in the soil, and manure or compost is added to the hole. This addition in turn attracts termites which dig galleries that make the infiltration of rainwater and runoff and the retention of moisture easier.

It is estimated that undertaking the zaï technique on a hectare of land requires 300 man hours of labour. In order to reduce the high labor requirement of the technique to about 50 hours per hectare[ii], some researchers and Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are exploring the use of animal traction and motorized traction[iii]. Yields are also expected to grow from 400kg/ha to about 800 kg/ha with the use of regular zaï, and over 1000kg/ha under the mechanized zaï.

Stone bunds, on the other hand, consist of a line of stones placed on the contour lines of a field. The bund line is designed to reduce runoff, either by lining up one big rock at a time or by digging a furrow and overlapping three small rocks (two rocks placed underneath and one above). Both types are designed to reduce runoff, increase sediment trapping upstream of the bund, control erosion through slope reduction and creating permeable micro-terraces, and to increase plot water intake. It is estimated that sorghum and millet yields increase by an additional 100kg/ha under the stone bunds method[iv].

Zaï and stone bunds can be combined on the same plot and reportedly lead to a 40% increase in staple crops’ yields. Training farmers on how to properly implement them can help restore marginal lands and prevent further degradation of currently cultivated lands. In addition, the yield increases can go a long way in reducing food insecurity in areas affected by land degradation if these techniques were to be adopted on a large scale.

These are just two of several existing indigenous techniques practiced across Africa. They present an opportunity to build on local wisdom and support communities to improve and scale up such interventions. These should not necessarily be seen as substitutes to modern interventions such as fertilisers and irrigation. But as low-cost proven techniques, there should be greater emphasis on their use and deployment in the fight against land degradation.

We need immediate responses to the recurring food crisis, but in our search for resilient, long term solutions to one of its fundamental causes, indigenous weapons against land degradation can be that bird in hand worth the many modern solutions, that may take just a lot longer to arrive.



[i] Dr. Eugenie Maiga is an economist at the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET)

[ii] (CIRAD, 2000)

[iii] (Tiemtoré, 2000)

[iv] (Bandré and Batta, 1998)