Survey: Organic farming beats conventional agriculture in Africa

CHUKA, KENYA: A long-term study in Kenya has shown that organic farming not only generates comparable yields, but also produces more income and health benefits for farmers than conventional methods.

Findings from the 10-year study conducted in Thika and Chuka sub-counties in the East African nation demystified the widely-held belief that organic agriculture needs more space to achieve comparable yields to conventional agriculture.

The survey, carried out since 2007 by the Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (or FiBL) in collaboration with local partners, involved field trials conducted on two locations in Kenya’s central highlands.


According to Dr. Noah Adamtey, the project’s coordinator, the study showed that yields of maize, an important staple food crop, under organic production are similar to those under conventional production in high input systems representing commercial largescale farming.

“We have seen that comparing the conventional system to that of organic system, yields are similar after the third year,” he said.

 “Due to the high yields over time from organic system – although it’s not significantly different from conventional system – these yields was able to offset the costs and therefore gave similar profit margins to both conventional and organic systems,” the Ghanaian-born agronomist added.   

With input costs lower for organic agriculture and higher prices on the markets, incomes for organic farmers start to be higher after five years of cropping and reach a 53% higher benefit in the sixth year, researchers said.

Parallel studies carried out in India and Bolivia on the production of cotton and coffee respectively proved similar positive results for the organic methods.

But Dr. Adamtey says a lot needs to be done to promote sustainable farming practices, especially among the small holder farmers in Africa.

“The message I am giving to the small farmers in Africa is that organic farming needs to be improved if they want to make more profit and also leave the land for the future generation,” he said emphasizing that small holder farmers need to do extra efforts in the management practices to ensure that the labor input gives an equivalent output.

David Amudavi, director of the Nairobi-based Biovision Africa Trust (BvAT) said the findings confirmed his organization’s approach of developing locally adapted agricultural practices for sustainable farming.

“The research work is quite indicative that --yes -- organic agriculture is not a system that can be ignored,” Dr. Amudavi said pointing out that the findings also support the Pan African initiative on Ecological Organic Agriculture, which at the moment is being implemented in 8 African countries: Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia (Eastern Africa), Benin, Senegal, Mali and Nigeria (West Africa).

“The health of our soils determines largely the future for us. If we can’t nourish our soils our future is likely to be doomed,” Dr. Amudavi says.

Organic farming is a farming method system which primarily aims at cultivating the land and raising crops in such a way, as to keep the soil alive and in good health by use of organic wastes, such as crop, animal and farm wastes) along with beneficial microbes to release nutrients to crops for increased sustainable production in an eco-friendly pollution-free environment.

But despite the huge benefits, the uptake of organic method systems is low among smallholder farmers across Africa.

Dr. Anne Muriuki of Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (or KALRO) says the ultimate goal is to support the development of policies and strategies that foster the adoption of sustainable land use practices.

“The organic sector has been growing though not rapid enough,” she said, adding that’s why it’s not being felt.

“We hope this experiment will continue to its conclusion and the trend we have begun to see will actually be strengthened,” Dr. Muriuki said, decrying the fact that Kenya lacked an organic agriculture policy in place.

“When there’s a government policy where everything can nest on then the government can push things in that area. We need an organic policy in place and we need to do that even more,” she added.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), at least 80 per cent of Africa’s population depends on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood. The sector has also provided employment to some 70 per cent of the people in sub-Saharan Africa.