Agroecology and Food Sovereignty

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(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) was first conceived in 2008 by a group of concerned individuals and was launched at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of Parties 17 (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa in December 2011. The alliance was founded on a mission to influence policies and to promote African solutions for food sovereignty. AFSA currently serves as a continental platform for consolidation of issues pertaining to food sovereignty and together marshal a single and louder voice on issues and tabling clear workable solutions.
In order to understand the inner workings of the Alliance, Capital reached out to AFSA’s general coordinator, Million Belay Ali (PhD) for insights on AFSA. Million was recently selected as one of four recipients of the Rhodes University Distinguished Alumni Award for the 2022 academic year for his important role played in linking environmental education with community development and policy influence work in Africa. The award recognized him as one of Africa’s leading champions of agroecology and food sovereignty for food system transformations in Africa. Below are excerpts from the candid interview;

Capital: What is AFSA? What does it do?

Million Belay: AFSA is a broad alliance of different civil societies that are part of the struggle for food sovereignty and Agroecology in Africa. These include: African farmers’ organizations, African NGO networks, specialist African NGOs, consumer movements in Africa, international organizations which support the stance of AFSA, and individuals. The establishment goal of AFSA was to create one African voice which is based on scientific research. Its members represent smallholder farmers, pastoralists, hunter/gatherers, indigenous peoples; faith based institutions and environmentalists from across Africa forming a collective voice of Africa. I believe we are succeeding at creating this collective voice and currently we have a network of networks with about 30 active members.
The other main goal is bringing new agendas, solution and researches to the development of the agriculture sector of Africa. We always work with our two hands, so to speak; with our one hand we fight, fight with those who try to give misinterpretation to the agriculture of Africa, and those who try to adopt their interest using African agriculture, which is historical.

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Before the pre-colonial arena, Africa was self-sufficient having its own agriculture economy coupled with a strong administrative system. In the colonial arena things changed based on the interest of colonialists including the agriculture system of the continent and even our self-esteem.
Even the pro colonial period was challenging which they still trace all the system in the continent with their interest making the continent always to be dependent on them and we as aid receivers. We are championing the fight against this.
It is not only fighting, with our other hand, we always try to bring solutions through research and studies, such as through agroecology. Agroecology has 3 branches. The first one is activity, for instance irrigation, increasing productivity connecting farmers and professionals, and promoting bio fertilizers. The other is science based researches and solutions whilst the third is to fight influences on the agriculture sector. In order to promote and develop these, we are working to influence policy makers to include agroecology in the agriculture and climate policies

Capital: What is the relation between agroecology and climate change?

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Million Belay: Climate change will affect the level and access to food. With temperature and water availability being the key factors in determining crop growth and productivity, change in these factors will lead to reduced crop productivity’
Adaptation is considered a key factor that will shape the future severity of climate change impacts on the food production monoculture nature of dominate agro-systems which may moderate negative impacts. The biggest solution is agroecology which will make farmers resilient, through diversification of agroecosystem, crop/livestock, combined with organic soil management, water conservation and harvesting and general enhancement through agro-biodiversity.
Understanding the agroecological features that underlie the resilience of traditional agroecosystem is an urgent need that can serve as a foundation for the design of adapted agriculture system.

Capital: From your perspective, do you think Ethiopia’s agriculture policy is keen on agroecology?

Million Belay: There are some signs of adoption of agroecology. For example under the Ministry of Agriculture, national resources’ teams do studies and researches on soil and water and also in the framing of the agriculture policy with the support of GIZ.
The outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, COVID-19, and also the conflict in the northern part of the country has made the government to focus on local solutions for food resilience. This not only applies for Ethiopia but also other countries too.
NGOs and funders are also turning their face to agroecology; perhaps unfortunately policies sometimes are influenced by the interest of NGOs and funders and thus for this, working with local or Africa based organization can be solution in going forward.

Capital: What is your view on the western influence on the continent?

Million Belay: Nowadays you cannot help but have a mixed reaction. For instance, if we looked at the USA, the bigger hand of the government is USAID and USAID is a toddle of industrial or commercial agriculture. To understand USAID, we need to see who controls the US government and its policies. Since USAID is a development corporation the goal of its aid is in line with the interest of other similar corporations’. We cannot expect anything new from them.
And if we take a look at the European side, there are corporations, funders and organizations who don’t want to hear about climate change or agriculture development such as agroecology. But I don’t think this will continue since now the effect of climate change is highly observed in the world and their general population mass is highly galvanized and requesting the need for policy change.

Capital: What Agricultural agenda should Africa bring to the Cop27 summit?

Million Belay: We are lobbying negotiators to bring an organized agenda on the Cop27 with regards to agriculture as the continent is primarily agricultural driven. So agriculture and adaptation should be a big agenda and agroecology should be emphasizing as the future of agriculture.

Capital: What are your thoughts on the national wheat project in Ethiopia?

Million Belay: As government, there is no question that feeding the population is a necessity. We can delve into decreasing import so as to reduce dependency but the question of resilience must equally be addressed. There are hundreds of seeds in the hand of wheat farmers but they are mosty using on similar seed in huge farmlands which begs the question, what of the other seeds? What kind of input are they using? Yes it has positive sides as it creates ways for independency but is it sustainable, environmentally or resilient in climate crises? These questions ought to be given much thought.
However, if one asks whether this can be done agroecologically? The answer is yes as we have some exemplary works in around Arsi, Oromia region.

Capital: What are you views on the green legacy movement in Ethiopia?

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Million Belay: I have been planting trees for the last more than 30 years. I am actually mostly known for that and I am happy that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has centered the same in to a government strategy. When I paid a visit to the countryside, there was visible change as I have seen so many fruits increase which consequently lead to increased income to farmers. I believe this is a great initiative and it ought to continue.
Of course planting is easy, but protecting the plant is another story. Therefore we should strive to also protect the plants ad the strategy ought to change with the location. Overall in my opinion, if from the planting, 20 percent grow on to grow, this will definitely be a huge success.

Capital: Do you have plans on expanding offices to Ethiopia and other countries?

Million Belay: AFSA was first conceived in Ethiopia by a group of individuals and was launched in South Africa in December 2011.
We actually want to open offices in Ethiopia but the problem is that you cannot take foreign currency out of Ethiopia when it comes in. Since AFSA works to distribute its support to its members from money it gets from funders, it is difficult for us to set up an office.
We are planning to open an office in Central Africa soon.

Capital: You are founder of MELKA Ethiopia; on what condition is it now?

Million Belay: Melka is doing so many activities on both national and regional issues related to environment and culture and I am now participating as a consultant.

Capital: What can we learn from the rest of Africa?

Million Belay: We have to learn to be open, intelligent, and ready for corporation with our African brothers for the industrialization of Africa and its agriculture, for African driven solutions to African problems.