As soon as Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) begins working with farmers, the clock starts ticking. The aim is to boost food production with agroecology. If we are not doubling crop production in six months, we may lose the interest or commitment of those project members, warns Robyn Hills, food gardens manager at FTFA.  

But, through simple interventions – such as changing how they water their crops – farmers can substantially increase their production. “Many of our farmers just have willpower, land, some water and a good fence,” Robyn explains. “It’s a good start, but not for production. If they don’t have the skills, they will never get their production up.”

There is an important question that FTFA has answered through two decades of helping farmers and gardeners grow food: What techniques and skills do South Africa’s small-scale farmers need to boost their production and transition from subsistence farming into running a sustainable business?

Creating more sustainable food systems with agroecology

FTFA draws on the principles of agroecology, Robyn says. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this system of farming integrates ecological and social principles into the design and management of food and agricultural systems. This makes it one of the most important tools for creating more sustainable farming practices globally.

“Agroecological innovations are based on the co-creation of knowledge, combining science with the traditional, practical and local knowledge of producers,” the FAO says. “By enhancing their autonomy and adaptive capacity, agroecology empowers producers and communities as key agents of change.”

The FAO lists 10 principles of agroecology: diversity (planting a variety of species together), synergy, efficiency, resilience, recycling, co-creation and sharing of knowledge, human and social values, culture and food traditions, responsible governance, and circular and solidarity economies.

“Agroecology depends on context-specific knowledge,” the FAO says. “It does not offer fixed prescriptions – rather, agroecological practices are tailored to fit the environmental, social, economic, cultural and political context.”

“Oh yes, my ouma used to do that”

This is what attracts FTFA Ecopreneur Layla Staegemann to agroecology and specifically, permaculture. (Permaculture is a holistic design method that falls under the larger umbrella of agroecology. It involves working with, rather than against nature.) “The slogan is ‘Use what you have’,” Layla says. “In the middle of a township, where there isn’t a lot of money around, you need to remember what your grandparents did. When I tell people about companion planting (which involves planting certain plants together because they promote each other’s health and growth), they say, ‘Oh yes, my ouma used to do that.’”

However, agroecology takes these design principles one step further. “Permaculture works in school gardens because they are learning gardens, teaching children the techniques and principles of caring for the Earth, caring for people, and sharing the surplus,” Robyn explains. 

“School gardeners don’t have the same concerns as farmers: Farmers worry about outputs. Agroecology looks at the economic as well as ecological patterns. It asks: ‘How can agriculture and ecology increase productivity in an environmentally conscious way?’ Through agroecology, farmers can achieve economies of scale while still promoting soil health.”

These principles, which are part of both permaculture and agroecology, will become increasingly important as the world’s climate changes. Southern Africa is expected to be particularly hard hit by climate change. This is in large part because its residents lack the resilience to bounce back after extreme weather events.

Agroecology could soften the blow for vulnerable farmers

A 2011 study found that Cuban farms using agroecology principles were more resilient in the face of natural disasters. After Hurricane Ike devastated the region, farms using agroecology principles had recovered 80–90% of their operations after 60 days. Less integrated farms achieved the same recovery after 120 days.

Another study following Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua in 1998 looked at 180 smallholder communities. It noted that plots using agroecology had 40% more topsoil and 49% lower incidence of landslides. The hurricane also had had a muted effect on profits.

“You want farmers to be able to buy school shoes

FTFA runs more than 130 food garden projects – about 85% of which are productive community-based market gardens. There is an intermediate level between subsistence and commercial farmers, and FTFA is working to build farmers up to that level, using agroecology to boost food production – and income. “That’s where you see the greatest impact,” Robyn says. “Subsistence farmers give away their surplus; but, once they get to this intermediate stage, people are able to employ their neighbours. That’s when you start seeing real change. 

“You want people to have buying power – you don’t want them to trade a pumpkin, you want them [farmers] to be able to buy school shoes.”

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