Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Agroecology case studies: Success stories from across the African continent

Before his passing in 2015, Zephaniah Phiri was better known as the “Water Harvester.”

Born in the small mining town of Zvishavane in central Zimbabwe, Phiri grew up in a highly inequitable society, the result of nearly a century of British colonial rule. After being detained for political activities, he was blacklisted from formal employment by the Rhodesian government and restricted to farming a dry parcel of land the size of four soccer fields.

Over the next 40 years, Phiri transformed that plot of land into a fertile oasis. By adopting a number of agroecological methods—including slowing water movement to minimize erosion, managing water in the nearby wetland, studying and adjusting his soil content, and utilizing intercropping and crop rotation techniques—Phiri became a success story, not only among local Zimbabwean farmers, but internationally, too.

Phiri’s inspiring life of resilience and resourcefulness is one of 33 stories shared in a series of agroecology case studies released by the Oakland Institute just before the Paris climate change conference in 2015.

Each of the 33 cases highlights an example of agroecology innovation across the African continent. That includes a case study about Community Markets for Conservation, a social enterprise operating in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley and another Beacon of Hope.

Together, these stories demonstrate how agroecology methods can be used to improve food security and address challenges related to climate change and poverty. Not only that, but they highlight solutions developed and implemented by farmers from across Africa, an important reminder that local and regional solutions are often the most effective way to address food systems challenges at scale.

Origin of the case studies

The California-based Oakland Institute describes itself as a progressive think tank dedicated to bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of our time.

Prior to releasing its agroecology case studies in 2015, the Institute had spent a decade documenting how land across the African continent is bought or leased to produce food, biofuel, and animal feed.

The practice is commonly referred to as “land-grabbing” and it’s a tactic utilized by private, foreign investors, and governments—frequently from wealthier, food secure countries. Those parties use the land to produce crops for export in order to meet their own national food security or biofuel needs. Their actions are almost always at the detriment of low-income, subsistence farmers, who often have no choice but to become workers in these multinational operations. The Oakland Institute released an extensive report on the issue in 2009.

According to the think tank, the 33 agroecology case studies directly challenge the current paradigm that favours foreign investment in agriculture for economic growth in Africa.

“We are told over and over that Africa needs a new Green Revolution, more synthetic fertilizers, and genetically modified crops,” said Frédéric Mousseau in a press release announcing the case studies. Mousseau is the Policy Director of the Oakland Institute and coordinated the research component of the project. “These case studies debunk these myths and highlight the multiple benefits of agroecology, including affordable and sustainable ways to boost agricultural yields while increasing farmers’ incomes, food security, and resilience.”

The case studies offer evidence that agroecology efforts are well underway across the African continent, and are not limited to research plots or small projects. In sharing these stories, the cases elevate the knowledge and lived experiences of the very farmers who are being disenfranchised by government policies and international land grab investments.

They may even, as Mousseau suggests, compel donors and policymakers to shift their approach towards agricultural development, and build credibility for Indigenous knowledge, the likes of which is often overlooked by research institutions and academics.

Assembling the case studies was a collaborative effort over the course of three years. Working alongside dozens of researchers and partner organizations, the team synthesized findings from various means of written documentation and research.

Diverse contexts, diverse cases

Agroecology, the Oakland Institute notes, is not a one-size-fits-all practice.

In the case of Zephaniah Phiri’s techniques in Zimbabwe, for instance, his methods were successfully scaled to other parts of the country only when farmers took into consideration their own unique growing conditions. This further supports the need to spotlight diverse examples of agroecology methods in different countries, climatic zones, and cultures.

From ecologically-based pest and weed management in East Africa to fair trade organic cocoa cooperatives in Sierra Leone, these 33 case studies provide a solid evidence base for agroecology and local solutions that can be referenced by international donors and national governments alike.