Case study

Responding to the Southern African Food Crisis

Taking an Agroecological Approach

ActionAid talked to us about how agroecology has a key role to play in the future of farming and fighting the low-income country food crisis.

In 2020 it was estimated that 45 million people were facing severe food shortages in Southern Africa after the worst drought the region had seen in 35 years. The scale of the crisis was unprecedented in this region, driven by multiple climate-related factors.

Agroecological approaches are sustainable, integrated and adapted to their context. They do not offer a set of prescribed practices, but key elements include encouraging crop diversity; planting in ways that encourage moisture retention; water harvesting; and production of manure.

Agroecology has huge environmental benefit, helping to mitigate climate change by using low-emission techniques and recycling resources. It is proven to increase yield and income for farmers, as well as helping them face the changes brought by climate change. It is also often cheaper than mainstream farming methods (which involve purchasing large quantities of fertiliser and pesticides).

Credit: Joseph Tembo/ Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre (FPC). Elizabeth Mpofu (one of the women farmers trained in agroecology in Zimbabwe) is plucking groundnuts from a home-made ‘A’ frame. This traditional technique for curing groundnuts is effective in reducing aflatoxins in the nuts and protecting the yield from bad weather and livestock.

To respond to this crisis and be prepared for the future, countries, businesses and individuals need to adapt. This involves not just responding to the immediate impacts but changing behaviour and methodologies in food production.


Supporting Adaptation

Not only does agroecology promote climate-resilient food production, but it can also improve gender equality, and help reduce poverty. This is why agroecological methods were central to ActionAid’s response in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe when the Southern African Food Crisis hit.

Across Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, a core part of ActionAid’s crisis response involved training smallholder farmers in agroecological farming methods. These included soil and water harvesting to retain moisture in soil, producing fertiliser from manure, integrated pest management, crop diversity and creation of water reservoirs. Enabling farmers to develop sustainable practices and farm a wider variety of climate resilient crops helped increase yields – saving lives and strengthening livelihoods.

ActionAid worked with farmers to improve their access to markets in all four countries. Stronger yields and more sustainable farming methodologies meant they could increase sales of produce. Not only did this improve their own financial stability, it ensured more readily available food sources for the wider community.

Working with women-led organisations was also vital to ensuring that activities met ActionAid’s standards of agroecology, which involve tackling gender inequality and poverty whilst embedding more resilient farming methods.

Elizabeth Mpofu, a smallholder farmer in Zimbabwe shares that “Looking at the climate, it has really changed, so we saw that these small grains we are growing give us sufficient food even if we get very little rain with the ways that we have been teaching each other

ActionAid’s success working cross-region and collaboratively with partners in all four countries demonstrates the power of combining deeply rooted local level responses – agroecology in particular – with input into national or district level policy and advocacy work. Women’s leadership helps to shift the power, moving from industrial large scale farming practices to locally led and owned approaches.

Many global stakeholders are already engaging with these techniques. The Southern African Food Crisis response within ActionAid allowed them to trial these solutions to respond to this particular crisis, gather evidence on their success and use this to influence higher level policy discussions, as well as expanding these techniques to other communities.


Where Can We Help?

The Terra Carta calls for projects to have strong feasibility. There is a great deal of knowledge already within the field of agroecology – what is needed now is to apply this at local, regional and national levels. This approach can be rolled out through training smallholder farmers, as in these projects. They can then be supported through policy work and advocacy.

ActionAid is calling on the private sector, governments and investors to:

  1. Work with experts in agroecology to learn how this method builds stronger and more sustainable positive impact.
  2. Commit to embedding agroecology into company operations with a long-term view that promotes sustainability and safeguards the health of people and planet.

This case study was prepared by ActionAid.

Banner photograph: Sorghum crops are resistant to long mid-season droughts and are well-suited to arid and semi-arid regions. Sorghum is a good source of starch and is used to make starch meal, porridge and alcoholic beverages. Credit: Joseph Tembo/ Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre (FPC).