Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Solutions for Scaling up Re-Greening

This blog post was co-written by Emily H. Averna and Robert Winterbottom of the World Resources Institute.

Bob Winterbottom presenting to the webinar audienceAt the January Ag Sector Council Webinar Agrilinks invited Craig Hanson, Jerry Glover, and Bob Winterbottom who addressed the role of improved farmer-led land and water management in addressing food production challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, as outlined in their recently published World Resources Report (WRR) working paper. Two additional co-authors of the WRR, Mike McGahuey and Dennis Garrity, also contributed to the presentation. The webinar generated a high level of interest and dialogue on scaling up re-greening solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa to boost smallholder yields among more than 150 participants from around the world.

Hanson opened the discussion by noting that millions of farmers in developing countries are struggling with chronic food insecurity against the backdrop of an exponentially increasing global population. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 27 percent of the population (more than 200 million people) is undernourished.1 Hanson cited analysis from the World Resources Institute (WRI) showing that the world will need to increase available food calories by more than 69 percent against a 2006 baseline if we are to feed the projected 9.6 billion global population in 2050.2  This global food production challenge is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers are faced with intense biophysical limitations. A total of 65 percent of land in Africa has already been degraded from erosion, nutrient mining, and other factors.3  WRI’s analysis underscores that addressing land and water management issues is one item on a broader menu of actions that will be necessary if we are to successfully feed the world in a manner that advances development and reduces pressure on the environment.

Glover then outlined the main challenges related to the management of soil, water, and sunlight, important issues farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa must consider to increase productivity. Given these challenges, Glover presented four key land and water management strategies profiled in the WRR working paper that have great potential to boost crop production, while also advancing economic development and reducing environmental impact. The recommended practices—farmer-led improvements in agroforestry, conservation agriculture, rainwater harvesting, and integrated soil fertility management—have resulted in documented improvements in crop yields and productivity, as well as enhanced resilience to climate change.4 These practices are particularly effective because they mimic the ecosystem characteristics of native plant communities with a mix of annual and perennial plants. Research has also shown that implementing multiple strategies in tandem with one another produces greater impact than implementing any one practice on its own. For instance, smallholder farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger experienced a 44 to 120 percent increase in sorghum and millet yields, along with a 50-130 percent increase in family incomes, by implementing a micro-dosing and soil fertility management technique alongside agroforestry and rainwater harvesting.5

Winterbottom identified the tremendous opportunity that exists to scale land and water management strategies both globally and in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone there are more than 300 million hectares of cropland suitable for scaling up a combination of these practices. WRI estimates that adoption of agroforestry and rainwater harvesting on just 25 percent of this cropland could increase yields by 50 percent and produce an additional 22 million tons of food. This translates to an additional 615 kcal per person per day, for 285 million people.6  

In closing the webinar Hanson, Glover, and Winterbottom cited five key approaches that could trigger widespread adoption of these improved land and water management practices. They noted that addressing gender in each of the following is essential to both correct past inequities in resource management and produce better development outcomes:

  • The first approach, increasing outreach and communication, requires that national and international policymakers better understand farmers’ previous experience, and the innovations they have already achieved, in land and water management. Facilitating farmer-to-farmer visits and opportunities for shared learning is also a key component of this approach.
  • Making the economic case for a given practice is critical. When weighing the economic viability of an investment, farmers must have a clear sense of its costs, benefits, and overall risk.
  • Mapping and targeting high-potential areas ensures that practices are implemented in areas with the maximum potential for impact. Researchers and farmers are already using maps that factor local climactic conditions to determine the suitability of given land and water management practices to great effect.
  • Identifying key barriers to improving land and water management practices and which policy-based, legal and institutional reforms are needed (including those related to secure land tenure and clarification of rights to manage trees on cropland) is essential to creating a supportive environment for improved practices to reach scale.
  • Finally, supporting capacity building activities can facilitate essential peer-to-peer learning, expand access to knowledge platforms, and empower local rule-making and enforcement for sustainable resource use.

Innovative farmers have demonstrated that it is possible make significant progress in boosting crop yields in ways that also help to restore degraded land and mitigate climate change.  Read more about improving land and water management and other proposed solutions to the global food challenge in the 2013-2014 World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future.


1FAO estimate cited in Winterbottom et al. (2013), p. 7.

2WRI analysis based on Alexandratos, N., and J. Bruinsma. 2012. World agriculture towards 2030/2050: The 2012 revision. Rome: FAO.

3Winterbottom, R., C. Reij, D. Garrity, et al. 2013. “Improving Land and Water Management.” World Resources Report Installment Four. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute.

4As defined in the World Resources Report installment “Improving Land and Water Management,” agroforestry refers to the deliberate integration of woody perennial plants―trees and shrubs―with crops or livestock on the same tract of land; conservation agriculture refers to a combination of reduced tillage, retention of crop residues or maintenance of cover crops, and crop rotation or diversification; rainwater harvesting refers to low-cost practices―such as planting pits, stone bunds, and earthen trenches along slopes―that capture and collect rainfall before it runs off farm fields; and integrated soil fertility management refers to the combined use of judicious amounts of mineral fertilizers and soil amendments such as manure, crop residues, compost, leaf litter, lime, or phosphate rock.  See Winterbottom et al. (2013) p. 2.

5Winterbottom et al. (2013), p. 19.

6WRI analysis using the following datasets: Protected areas: IUCN and UNEP. 2013. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Cambridge, UK: UNEP-WCMC. Croplands: Fritz, S. and L. See. 2013. Global Hybrid Cropland. Laxenburg, Austria: IIASA and IFPRI. Precipitation isohyets: FAO/UNEP Desertification and Mapping Project. 1986. Africa Mean Annual Rainfall. Geneva, Switzerland: UNEP/GRID.