Informing food security priorities through the analysis of farming systems

In some African countries every second child is stunted—an indicator of really poor food security—despite the promising economic growth in many countries across the continent. It is well known that Africa lags behind other developing regions in food production, rural incomes and diversity of diets. However, the farming systems, including crops, trees, livestock, and fishing, vary tremendously from the Sahelian pastoralism to the irrigation schemes of Somalia, to the dense settlements on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. Improved knowledge of these complex farming systems is an essential ingredient to developing strategies and action plans for improving food and nutrition security in these diverse rural populations — and to feeding the growing cities of Africa where so many migrants are taking shelter.

At the turn of the century, the World Bank and FAO classified African farming systems (Dixon et al 2001), analysed the drivers of change and identified strategic priorities in each of these systems. The 2001 Farming Systems and Poverty book has proved to be a key tool in targeting and prioritising agricultural research and development. It has been used repeatedly for targeting and site selection of large-scale international research and development programs such as the InterAcademy Council report on Africa, the Millennium Villages Project and the CGIAR CRPs. In a decade since its publication much has changed including a population increase of approximately a third, the dynamism of many African economies and a series of external shocks such as the severe drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011. Consequently, the AIFSC is supporting an update of the analysis of Sub-Saharan farming systems with a series of multi-disciplinary teams working across the region. Broad positive and negative trends have been shaping African agricultures: population, food insecurity and poverty are growing, while the natural resource base is under severe threat of degradation, compounded by climate change, which is forecast to have some of its most severe impacts in parts of Africa (e.g. the Limpopo Basin in southern Africa). As a result, household vulnerability is increasing.

At the same time, an expanding array of options in science and technology, institutions and policy has become available. Positive developments have taken place in the liberalisation of trade and markets, the strengthening of institutions and policies, the sharing of information/knowledge and investments in human/social capital.  As a result of both internal and external drivers (such as demographics, natural resource availability, technology, markets, policies and institutions, information and social capital) behind these trends, farming systems are evolving dynamically.

Under the umbrella of the African Union/New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AU/NEPAD), the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) provides a framework for agricultural development in Africa, emphasising that agriculture lies at the heart of any resolution of the rural development crises. The challenge for developing countries is to identify specific agricultural and rural development needs and opportunities, and to focus investment in the right types of farming systems development in areas where the greatest impact on food security and poverty will be achieved. This identification and resource allocation process can be facilitated by analysing farming systems in order to identify, quantify and integrate the driving forces and interactions that shape and constrain farming systems and the management of natural resources. In the course of this analytical process it is also helpful to be able to: aggregate locations with similar constraints and investment opportunities through the application of a farming systems framework; and provide options for managing risk and enhancing productivity of farming systems through diversification and sustainable intensification.

Dennis Garrity at the World Agroforesty Centre (ICRAF) is leading the update of the farming systems analyses with the support of John Dixon of ACIAR, ICRAF Board Research Fellow Jean-Marc Boffa and Chris Auricht of Auricht Projects, with the support of an advisory group including Martin Bwalya (NEPAD), John Lynam (independent consultant) and George Mburathi (ACIAR SIMLESA Advisor). A dozen or so writing teams have been assembled to elaborate and update the analyses of the farming systems of Africa. So far, two workshops have been held in Nairobi, a wealth of resource, production and nutritional spatial data have been assembled, and teams have drafted chapters for most of the farming systems. Whereas only 10 years ago there was limited spatial data describing African agriculture, there is now a large volume of spatial data available to support improved analysis of systems, thanks to the FAO, the Gates Foundation, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and other strategic investors.  As a result, the challenge has moved from searching for data to actually selecting the best data that are fit for the purpose from a broad spectrum of available datasets.

This study will therefore produce a comprehensive, up-to-date forward-looking synthesis on African farming systems for decision makers, research organisations and development actors upon which to build farming systems resilience to current stresses and address rural poverty and food security in an effective manner. An interim booklet will be produced for early guidance to strategy development of the AIFSC and presented at the AIFSC Conference in November 2012; and a full report to support program development for the Centre will be finalised in early 2013. 

Article by Dennis Garrity, Jean-Marc Boffa, John Dixon and Christopher Auricht.
See the project page or contact Jean-Marc Boffa for further information (

Farming Systems Final Workshop - project team hard at work.