Dear Reader- 

Here at PlantCatalyst® we’re passionate about agriculture and we love to read articles about a variety of agricultural practices, issues and trends.  To that end we’ve begun asking writers to submit blogs that our followers might find interesting.  This blog hits close to home as we’ve been doing work with farmers in Sub-Saharan in an effort to help solve the food crisis there.  The blog was written by Grant Schooley, an Ireland-based climate and agriculture scientist, and it’s called “Struggles and Solutions for Smallholder Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.”  We hope you enjoy it!

Struggles and Solutions for Smallholder Farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa

Grant M. Schooley

Despite the massive technological changes of the green revolution in the mid-20th century, which boosted agricultural production in the developed world – increased population is placing higher pressure on both land and producers than previously believed. While mechanization and petrochemical inputs brought about prosperity and abundance in the food system, yield stagnation in cereal crops and lack of access to appropriate technology in the LDCs (least developed countries) continue to restrain economic growth and the battle against hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Discussion of limiting factors for smallholders in SSA often revolve around poor management of fertility, lack of availability of irrigation water, and extensive physical labor required for production. Climate change will undoubtedly result in increased rain event variability and increased mean temperature in most SSA growing regions. Proper management of soil moisture and soil fertility are paramount to maintaining and increasing agricultural yields, especially in already ecologically unsound environments.

For the purpose of this post, I’d like to focus on two main methods of soil moisture management for smallholders: field laser leveling and no-till techniques.

Laser-leveling technology allows for the resurfacing of agricultural land, a job that is traditionally done by hand or via draft animal; and often poorly so. Using modern implements, leveling time for smallholders averages 4-5 hours and only needs to be repeated every 3-4 growing seasons (Aryal and Jat, 2015). Leveling agricultural fields helps to reduce erosion by minimizing water runoff. This helps maintain soil organic matter and fertility, and improves soil moisture content by allowing for even infiltration across the field surface. Preliminary research in smallholder rice and wheat systems in India found that laser-levelling could reduce irrigation time by up to 69 hours per hectare in rice systems and improve yields by 7% compared to traditionally levelled fields (Aryal and Jat, 2015). This resulted in a net improvement of $194 USD per hectare per year increase in the Haryana region of India for rice and wheat farmers (Aryal et al., 2015). While this technology may seem out of reach for those smallholders in the LDCs, research shows that accessibility is higher than ever. Through the implementation of equipment sharing schemes and government-backed agricultural initiatives, the cost of owning or purchasing new technology can be mitigated (Lal and Stewart, 2016).

No-till agriculture has been hotly debated in the smallholder development realm. No-till techniques have been shown to improve soil structure, soil moisture, and fertility over time. However, some alternative studies have shown that reduction in overall crop yields are possible despite benefits to the soil and reduction of erosion (Gattinger et al., 2011). The inclusion of crop rotation and maintenance of permanent vegetative soil cover are key to making no-till agriculture work in the long term. While yield intensification is necessary for a growing population, soil management is a long-term approach to ensure that arable land will remain arable in the future. This serves to increase food security and improve resilience to future climate shocks. A fully integrated approach to no-till agriculture has been shown to increase yields by up to 74% in the first three years of adoption (Tanadini and Mehrabi, 2017). While that level of growth may not be sustainable over time, advances in breeding and hybridization are expected to continue – with 50% of yield improvement in grain crops over the last hundred years coming from breeding advancements (Edgerton, 2009). No-till techniques allow for maintenance and improvement of arable land, and can be part of an integrated approach to improving yields and land use efficiency.

While these techniques themselves are capable of transforming soil structure and improving soil health, a combined and integrated approach should employ multiple techniques for improving yield and ensuring future crop suitability. If I could make one recommendation to any smallholder farmer, it would be to work to improve soil health. Healthy soil provides fertility, biodiversity (for pest management), and holds moisture well for when drought conditions occur. Leveling fields to reduce runoff and soil disturbance are relatively easy and affordable options for improving smallholder efficiency and food security.

Works Cited

Aryal, J. and Jat, M. (2015) Laser land levelling: How it strikes all the right climate-smart chords, CCAFS blog. Available at: (Accessed: 20 September 2017).

Aryal, J. P. et al. (2015) ‘Impacts of laser land leveling in rice–wheat systems of the north–western indo-gangetic plains of India’, Food Security. Springer Netherlands, 7(3), pp. 725–738. doi: 10.1007/s12571-015-0460-y.

Edgerton, M. D. (2009) ‘Increasing crop productivity to meet global needs for feed, food, and fuel.’, Plant physiology. American Society of Plant Biologists, 149(1), pp. 7–13. doi: 10.1104/pp.108.130195.

Gattinger, A. et al. (2011) ‘Climate Change and Agriculture :No-till agriculture – a climate smart solution’, p. 24. Available at: (Accessed: 20 September 2017).

Lal, R. and Stewart, B. A. (Bobby A. (2016) Soil-specific farming : precision agriculture. Available at: leveling for sma (Accessed: 20 September 2017).

Tanadini, M. and Mehrabi, Z. (2017) ‘Does no-till agriculture limit crop yields?’, bioRxiv. doi: 10.1101/179358.