Science in Society Archive

New Paradigm Food & Agriculture

Post-2015 Development: Africans Show the Way

Time to move on from redefining the problems and concentrate on solutions already seeded on the ground Prof Roger Leakey

Editor’s Note

This article describes one of many case studies and solutions to poverty presented recently in UNCTAD’s Trade and Environment Report [1] (see [2] Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed In Agriculture, SiS 60)

Redefining problems without solutions

In Global Development Goals – Leaving No-one Behind [3], the United Nations Association of the United Kingdom (UNA-UK) presents a collection of articles by eminent people in important positions around the globe. Although this report identifies progress towards some Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), it recognizes that success has been uneven. The principle achievement of the MDGs has been “shaping the international discourse and driving the allocation of resources towards key global development goals ... with unprecedented political commitment and a strong consensus for tackling poverty and other development problems.” The report itself, however, makes rather depressing reading as it seems we are not really making huge progress in our efforts to address the big issues facing the world, especially with regard to the gap between rich and poor. Instead of identifying solutions, this booklet redefines the problems and we go from eight Millennium Development Goals to twelve Post-2015 Development Goals. It seems we still haven’t learnt that hunger, malnutrition, poverty and many of the other things on our ‘to-do wish list” are part of a bigger and inter-related complex of issues. Why?

Maybe the problem is the size and complexity of all the interacting factors impacting on the lives of people scattered across numerous sectors and strata of society. The ‘development’ agenda is very multi-disciplinary and is partitioned between rural and urban situations. Furthermore, it requires some detailed understanding of biophysical and socio-economic issues best addressed within holistic integrated rural development programmes. Unfortunately, we live in a world where problems and solutions are confined to disconnected silos. How to proceed is also influenced by the very different perspectives of people depending on whether they are looking from industrial or the least developed countries.

The poverty trap

Many of the problems arising from poverty in urban areas of least developed countries arise from inward migration from the countryside; thus central to making progress across all the development targets is tackling the root causes of land degradation and rural poverty. The biggest issue in the rural tropics is that actual crop yields are well below the yield potential of modern varieties (this difference is called the Yield Gap). The reasons are complex. First, there is the crippling decline of soil fertility and a loss of agroecological functions. This results in land degradation and the loss of biodiversity above- and below-ground. This is exacerbated by persistent high levels of poverty, which deny farmers access to modern technologies, such as fertilizers and other agricultural inputs (see p192 of [1] UNCTAD Trade and Environment Review 2013 - Wake up Before it’s too Late). Consequently we have billions of marginalized people, many of them farming households, trapped in poverty and suffering from malnutrition, hunger and poor health.  They also lack access to clean water, medical and other social services, and opportunities for education and employment – indeed all the things highlighted by the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Reversing the downward spiral and closing the Yield Gap

To try to get a better understanding of the issues in rural Africa, the staff of the World Agroforestry Centre asked farmers in Cameroon what they would like to see from agriculture. That was twenty years ago. Their illuminating and unexpected request was for the chance to reintroduce and cultivate the indigenous trees that used to provide fruits, nuts, leaves, medicinal products etc. when they were hunter-gatherers before the destruction of forests and woodlands.   Responding to this request has led to a multi-disciplinary innovation to address the complex set of issues driving the downward spiral to social deprivation in which land degradation drives poverty and poverty drives land degradation. This is the cause of the Yield Gap. To close this Yield Gap it is necessary to reverse the downward spiral by rehabilitating the land and creating a source of income.  In simple terms, this involves a 3-step approach that can be easily adapted to the needs of different sets of biophysical and socio-economic situations found in different locations.  Rehabilitation involves restoring the ecological health of the farming system to address declining yields and to promote food security by ensuring the proper functioning of the agroecosystem (step 1); enriching these farming systems with the ‘Trees of Life’ that produce highly nutritious and marketable products that are also traditionally and culturally important (step 2); and finally promoting local cottage industries to create business and employment opportunities in value-adding that lift communities out of poverty (step 3) [4].

The second step mentioned above is in response to the request of the farmers. The World Agroforestry Centre, together with other research teams around the world, have developed a participatory approach engaging local communities to domesticate these ‘Trees of Life’ using appropriate village-based technologies that can be implemented by poor farmers in remote villages in the tropics. This process and how it addresses big global issues is the subject of my book Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture [5]. The trees are also of course long-lived perennial plants that sequester carbon both in their biomass, in the soil and in other vegetation.

Albeit on a small scale (about 10 000 farmers in 500 villages), the results of this initiative in Cameroon have been spectacular and the integration of these trees in local farming systems has acted as a catalyst for the stimulation of social, economic and environmental benefits – a list too long to present here, except to say that lives are improving and the average income from community nurseries has risen from essentially nothing to US$145, US$16 000, and US$28 350 after 2, 5, and 10 years, respectively.  One consequence is that some youths have decided to stay in the community rather than seek urban employment because they can see a future in their villages. The benefits address many of the constraints arising from the failure of modern agriculture - malnutrition, poverty and environmental degradation, including climate change. These are the same constraints responsible for the loss of productivity, the global food crisis and hunger in nearly half the world population.  

The most innovative thing about this approach is that it is multi-disciplinary and based on the ideas and innovations implemented by poor African farmers. Now, twenty years after the start of the World Agroforestry Centre’s study, it is becoming clear that these African farmers actually identified the key which unlocks the Rural Development Syndrome (relief from hunger, malnutrition, poverty, social injustice, environmental degradation and loss of ecological services). I have presented [6] “12 Principles for Better Food and More Food from Mature Perennial Agroecosystems” based on lessons drawn from the study. It involves the delivery of multifunctional agriculture to simultaneously rehabilitate degraded farmland and diversify poor smallholder farming systems with indigenous species that the farmers in Cameroon wanted. These principles point the way to integrated rural development through the sustainable intensification of tropical agriculture, rural business development for economic growth and enhanced well-being for billions of marginalized people.

Hopefully, “a new Eden is around the corner” if we put our minds to it and put our money where our mouths are. This could be the “kick-off” to a match were we start scoring many of the Post-2015 Development Goals.  

Prof Roger Leakey is Vice Chairman of the International Tree Foundation and author of Living with the Trees of Life - Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture

Article first published 30/10/13


  1. UNCTAD. Wake up Before it is Too Late, Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate, Trade and Environment Review 2013, pp. 19-21, UNCTAD, Geneva, 2013.
  2. Ho MW. Paradigm shift urgently needed in agriculture. Science in Society 60 (in press).
  3. Global Development Goals – Leaving No-one Behind, United Nations Association of the United Kingdom, London, 2013,
  4. Leakey R. Three steps to bridging the yield gap, 14 January 2013, Global Food Security,
  5. Leakey R. Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture, CABI, Oxford, 2012,
  6. Leakey R. 12 principles for better food and more food from mature perennial agroecosystems. FAO Workshop on Food Security, Rome, 2013,

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There are 2 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

ken hargesheimer Comment left 31st October 2013 02:02:27
To stop the movement of people from the rural areas to the cities is very simple: Farmers need a way to make a profit. There is a solution. It is organic, no-till farming in permanent beds using bucket drip irrigation. This is a proven technology. Farmers are practicing it in every country but is not widely known. Why? No one profits by promoting it. No sales. The farmer buys nothing except seed. I have a free dvd I will mail to anyone, anywhere.

Subhash Mehta Comment left 1st November 2013 17:05:49
I am fully in agreement with Ken and taking it forward if we are to assist and facilitate producer communities to set up their orgs/ company staffed by professionals (general practitioners (GPs) and MBAs in agriculture to take over all responsibilities and manage risks - cash to cash cycle, leaving on farm activities to members, focussing on producing nutritious food for most of the communities own needs, at little or no cost, thus ensuring access, surplus if any, for markets in the vicinity