Agroecology: Reorienting agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa

A field of cultivated legume plants plants mixed in with cereal crops. The soil is a light brown and trees can be seen in the distance.

Agroecology in practice: One of Moses Kansanga's agroecology projects in Malawi studies the local practice of intercropping cereal crops and legumes to better understand ecological synergies and how they can be leveraged to increase productivity while supporting healthy local ecosystems and communities. (Moses Kansanga)

In the semiarid conditions of Sub-Saharan Africa, stories of agriculture, environment, and community are interwoven with barriers. The region’s productivity is at the mercy of seasonal rains, which carve out a narrow five-month growing period now increasingly unpredictable with changing climatic conditions. Its communities grapple with seasonal food insecurity that perpetuates cycles of poverty and inequality. Yet, between the parched ground and the people that depend on it, there are gaping cracks in scientific understanding where agricultural systems have failed to incorporate the social dimensions of sustainable food systems. For some, the study of Sub-Saharan Africa’s unique agricultural contexts, challenges, and communities is foreign and unfamiliar. For Moses Kansanga Ph.D., it’s a study of home.

Growing up in Northern Ghana, Kansanga experienced food insecurity early in life. Times of scarcity brought famine…and bigger questions. “A couple of kilometers out,” he says “there was a food-secure region with year-round cultivation…” Why? How? 

These questions guided his career, which began with the pursuit of finding out why his childhood geographical setting had the recurring issue of hunger. The beginning of the answer was in geography, of which he is now an Associate Professor at the George Washington University. According to Kansanga, geography is a tool to think and study across scale. He credits it for allowing him to “contextualize the challenges he observed at home outwardly to national and international dynamics” of global food systems and environmental justice.

As a researcher, Kansanga’s work has expanded to analyzing solutions to ecological issues in a contextually relevant manner that encompasses the complexities of communities like his own. His research focus on sustainable agriculture depicts how agriculture is enmeshed with interconnected systems of food security, equity, gender, and other social dynamics. In other words, Kansanga’s research is in the growing field of agroecology.

What exactly is “agroecology”?

At its most basic, agroecology is a holistic approach to understanding agriculture within the context of various interacting economic, environmental, and social systems. For Kansanga, agroecology emphasizes “reorienting agriculture in an ecologically friendly manner” while maintaining a strong social justice dimension that addresses social inequalities in the food system. It’s an approach that expands beyond academia and forms what the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization describes as a “transdisciplinary field” that “is concurrently a science, a set of practices, and a social movement” composed of 10 key elements. See the FAO's explanatory video here.

A graphic depicting the 10 elements of agroecology according to the FAO. Each element is accompanied by a tan and light green illustrative symobl.
The Food and Agriculture Organization's 10 Elements of Agroecology Framework aims to encompass local contexts in understandings of agriculture, and includes: diversity, co-creation and sharing of knowledge, synergies, efficiency, recycling, resilience, human and social values, culture and food traditions, responsible governance, and circular and solidarity economy. (Food and Agriculture Organization/CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO)

The agroecological emphasis on examining social inequalities on a local scale has been especially central to Kansanga’s research, where he has found that it helps “create an atmosphere for dialogue at the local level.” This dialogue, Kansanga says, often plays a key role in beginning difficult cultural discussions that reckon with themes of gender inequality and traditional family dynamics that play into agricultural systems. Often, it comes with engaging communities in critical questions such as:

  • Does everyone have equal access to the farming process?

  • How does gender inequality play out in agricultural communities where women tend to play a peripheral role?

  • Would food production increase if women had the same access to agricultural resources and processes?

Furthermore, agroecology provides a framework for preserving and integrating local knowledge alongside innovative solutions — two components that can, at times, seem at odds with each other. But together, they offer much more, as “traditional systems,” Kansanga says, “are the basis of scientific advancements in agriculture.” And given a safe environment where farmers actively collaborate with and contribute to agroecological research, Kansanga says that traditional insights meet with scientific knowledge and spur innovation and studies into the scientific background of traditional practices.

Lush green field with crops growing out of row-like mounds of soil, trees are dispersed across the field
Malawi, Africa: Intercropped cereal grains and legumes in one of Kansanga's agroecology projects. ​​​(Moses Kansanga/GWU)

For example, for centuries, local farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa would plant in raised mounds of soil with intercropped beans and millet to consolidate nutrients and create a form of what Kansanga compares to “instant manure” that increased productivity.

However, as the economic principle of maximizing growing space was popularized, many farmers moved to monoculture row crops that lost the ecological synergies of the traditional mound intercropping system. Now, agroecology gives researchers like Kansanga the space to study traditional practices and work with farmers to create agroecological systems that are more powerful and resilient. 

Why is the community lens of agroecology important?

Without the lens of communities, agriculture is understood only through the environmental and economic lenses, which Kansanga says is a “limited view of how agriculture should be.” Relying on technological solutions based on overlapping economic and environmental interests is like “applying a bandage without addressing structural undertones” that make systems unequal and, therefore, unsustainable.

Agroecologists seek to understand how ecologically friendly principles and social justice intersect in a way that draws from the three pillars in the United Nations’ understanding of sustainability: economic, ecological, and social. In his research, this unique perspective has allowed Kansanga to add more nuance to conversations about sustainable food systems, or “agroecosystems,” in West Africa. 

For example, Kansanga’s studies include examining the multidimensional impact of Africa’s Green Revolution, which was carried out by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) with the aim of reducing food insecurity and poverty in Africa. AGRA primarily focused on increasing agricultural productivity by expanding smallholder farmer access to mass-production technology like commercial seeds, fertilizers, and irrigation systems. However, agroecologists like Kansanga emphasize that AGRA also had socioeconomic impacts on local farmers that changed the local distribution of wealth, displaced traditional staple crops, altered soil and land quality, and shifted gender dynamics.

Roasted shea seeds (brown) scattered on dirt floor, close up
Roasted Shea seeds are processed primarily
women, who extract Shea butter-- a valuable
compound consumed in Africa or used as a
moisturizing ingredient in cosmetic products
worldwide.
(Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Under the more comprehensive scope of agroecology, Kansanga worked with a team of researchers to uncover how the mechanization of smallholder agriculture in the African Green Revolution contributed to increased gender inequality in Ghana.  Local women, their research revealed, were displaced from traditional roles in the local agricultural system as the use of heavy machinery contributed to cutting down the native Vitellaria paradoxa, or Shea trees. In Ghana, where Shea processing remains one of the only livelihood domains where women control the income input, the shea trees growing in agricultural fields provided valuable access to livelihood resources and a degree of economic independence.

Here, Kansanga says agroecology goes beyond other approaches to agriculture – like regenerative agriculture – in that it acknowledges gains in ecological productivity and benefits, but also poses the question: “what about the inequalities that underscore the system?” Agroecology argues that “inequalities should also receive attention” in agriculture and provides a framework for a community-oriented approach that encompasses social justice and equity for the most marginalized as vital components of sustainable agriculture.

Dense ground cover with grasses and crops in area growing trees that supply food
Agroecology is a diverse and flexible field, encompassing many studies that specialize in certain ecological or agricultural contexts like agroforestry, where crops grow in a more forested agroecosystem. (Moses Kansanga/GWU)

Beyond West Africa: Where do we go from here?

Kansanga hopes that his research is only the beginning of cultivating more support for agroecology in and beyond the region. “Africa,” he says, “has a good chance of asking the social inequity question and addressing it first because it is not neck-deep in agricultural modernization.”

Unlike much of the Global North, Africa has what Kansanga says is a late-comer advantage where intensive agriculture and heavy mechanization have yet to take hold completely, and there are remnants of traditional practices left. Still, he challenges the Global North to examine food systems with an agroecological approach that recognizes how their agricultural systems are interconnected with systems of inequality within the Global North and to reinforce such systems in the Global South. 

On agroecology,  Kansanga says, “it’s working,” but its journey towards integration into mainstream consciousness is stymied by challenges of resources and funding. Still, agroecology is moving the conversation of agriculture beyond the economy and the environment and back to the communities and people it sustains. It challenges advocates of sustainable agriculture to understand agriculture as more than an economic and ecological issue, but a social justice issue. Agroecology offers the opportunity to build valuable communal contexts into a more equitable global food system, and for Kansanga, this includes personal contexts as well, because ground zero for agroecology is home.

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