Depleted Land Yields Little : African Farmers Face Drought and Dim Future

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Associated Press

Alex Njorogeh needs no expert to explain why his neighbor’s corn grows fat while his shrivels and dies. He can see the reason next door, placidly chewing grass into manure.

“I had a cow, too, but I sold it to feed my children,” Njorogeh said. “I can’t afford chemical fertilizer. No manure, no maize (corn), no milk, no meat. But what could I do?”

Like most African farmers, he is depleting his soil. In more arid regions of Africa, famine has already resulted.


Instead of corn, Njorogeh grows coffee, coaxing a ton each year from his two tired acres. World prices are soaring, but he gets the equivalent of only a dime a pound. Corrupt middlemen take much of that.

Not Enough Food

In the end, he cannot buy enough food for his family, let alone another cow, or shoes.

Farther south, on Tanzania’s high Kitulo Plateau, peasants’ potatoes would humble an Idaho farmer. But 60% rot. Tanzania, desperately low on trucks and fuel, cannot move them to market.

Eroded land and drought leave calamitous shortages in parts of Africa. In Zimbabwe alone, however, 1 million tons of excess maize lie unsold under tarpaulins. Malawi’s surplus is 300,000 tons.

Few farmers feel the impact of hundreds of millions of dollars that foreign donors spend each year on improving food crops. Most could use advice, but their problems are more basic.

‘Good Farmers’

“Africans are good farmers,” said Norman Borlaug, who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for agricultural advancements that became known as the Green Revolution. “But no matter how good a farmer is, he must be linked to an economic system.”

Now teaching at Texas A&M; University, he was interviewed while on a visit to Tanzania.

“A farmer needs a reasonable amount of fertilizer at affordable levels and the assurance he will be paid something similar to world prices,” Borlaug said. “But governments have removed incentives.”


Officials have held urban food prices so low that some farmers grow at a loss, he said.

Growing Better Grains

Borlaug is involved in Global 2000, a project of former President Jimmy Carter to help farmers grow better grains. The plan calls for $2.5 million in private grants to enable foreign experts to advise about 50 farmers at strategic points in Tanzania, Zambia, Sudan and Ghana.

Farmers will continue using pointed sticks and hoes, Carter said during a visit here, but better seeds, fertilizers and techniques can double and triple yields. He told an interviewer in London that he would stay with the project until it succeeds: “My own reputation is at stake.”

But overall challenge is vast, and problems go far beyond low yields, experts say.

Poor farming causes permanent damage, said Sir Michael Blundell, for 60 years a senior Kenyan agriculture official and farmer. The answer, he said, is education--but also capital and political will.

Proper Management Needed

“If semiarid areas are properly managed, they can contribute considerably to food production,” Blundell said. “But with overstocking (of cattle) and deforestation, there is only one end in sight.”

He added that European nations and the United States should work together to assist farmers, assure better management and provide capital across Africa’s threatened regions.

“They need to act in concert and decide what items will be bought from each instead of scheming against each other. If they are going to feed Africa for the rest of the century, they had better take a firm grasp of the nettle.”


Veteran agronomists say Africa’s food problem is more economic and political than it is agricultural.

Better Yields vs. Risk

“We always push for better yields, but the African seeks to minimize risk,” said Joanny Guillard, a specialist in Paris. “He would rather have one ton every year than three in one year and zero the next. His life depends on it.”

Most African countries are hard put to move food surpluses to deficit areas within their own borders. Few are able or willing to buy from their neighbors. Most rely instead on U.S. or European food aid.

For farmers, teetering on the brink of hunger, every crop is a gamble. Too much means wasted capital. Too little means depending on a meager trickle of gift food, which may never come at all.

Even farmers who grow enough grain can seldom afford the cooking oil and protein sources they need to protect their children from crippling malnutrition.

Emergency Income

Hard-pressed farmers chop down dwindling forests, selling wood or charcoal as an emergency source of income. Nearly 95% depend on wood for cooking and heating. Anything else is too costly.


When land is depleted, farmers often move on, slashing and burning to clear new plots of fragile land which, in turn, dies without nutrients.

Advanced techniques show some promise on larger farms. In Kenya, for example, cooperatives share heavy equipment and buy seed and chemicals in bulk. Government agents offer advice on new research.

But such farms are often badly managed, and some officials steal profits. State farms in Zambia, among others, offer little incentive to workers who save their energy for their own small plots.

Traditional Methods

And most Africans work small subsistence plots by traditional methods. They know what they need: credits, fertilizers, pesticides and simple tools. Above all, they need market prices to cover their costs.

Njorogeh is a dramatic example.

Until 1984, he drove a cab in Nairobi. Like most Kenyan workers, he kept a shamba --a small farm--to feed his family. Then he crushed his leg in an accident. The shamba was his unemployment insurance.

“Farming is all I can do now,” he said, swinging on crutches between his coffee plants and banana trees toward a simple mud house he built himself.

‘Poor Land for Food’

The shamba was a gift from his father who moved north where the land was richer. “This is poor land for food, now,” he admits. But, only 45 miles from Nairobi, it is worth $1,500 an acre.


With elaborate precision, Njorogeh explained his economics.

Food comes to the equivalent of $800 a year. Firewood to cook it is $185. Nine crop sprays a year cost $60, and 400 pounds of fertilizer, $55. Each harvest, he pays a coffee picker $1 a day for 10 days.

His brother drives him to Nairobi to see a doctor, but treatments for his leg can cost $70. Everything else--clothing, school costs for two children, care for his infant daughter--are extra.

Financial Burdens

Coffee earns him $250. When mature, his five avocado trees should add $50. The government pays nothing. He and his wife, each working dawn to dusk, end the year $1,000 in the hole.

“How do you manage?” a visitor asked. Njorogeh shrugged. “We manage.”