Cooperative members in Burkina Faso water their crops. World Bank Photo Collection

Creating a “profound transformation” of Africa’s landscapes

Three questions with Future Africa director Cheikh Mbow

Last year, nearly 12 percent of people in the world were severely food insecure, and with climate change, conflict and the lasting effects of the pandemic, this number isn’t expected to drop anytime soon.

In the lead-up to the UN Food Systems Summit on 23 September, where global leaders will convene on how to better feed the world, the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry are gathering a smaller group of food systems experts to examine how to integrate environmental sustainability and livelihoods into these discussions.

Cheikh Mbow, director of Pretoria-based research institute Future Africa, will speak at the event (Food. Nature. People., 2 September 2021), and here, he gives Landscape News a glimpse into his thoughts on the trajectory for ending hunger and malnutrition in Africa – including reverting to more traditional practices and landscapes.

Courtesy of Cheikh Mbow

Can you speak on this event’s focus topics – food, nature, people – in the African context?

In Africa, you have many, many plants that yield quality foods, quality cereals, quality grains. Therefore, the diversification of food that is needed in any landscape should be easy in Africa. We must promote that diversity to improve both quality and quantity of foods for proper diets and nutrition. To me, it is a triple win: a win for food, a win for health and a win for the environment.

Nature is central to lives and livelihoods of African people because they rely on natural products for most of their needs. The relationship between the survival of communities and the assets that nature provides is stronger in Africa than anywhere else in the world because of poverty. Furthermore, the places that are called ‘arid’ and ‘semi-arid’ – areas where famine is most often reported and most of the big challenges of land degradation exist – are where 70 percent of Africa’s agricultural landscapes are found. Therefore, if we really want a better Africa in terms of resilience, poverty alleviation and ability to respond to climate change, the big leverage points are arid and semi-arid lands. They have huge potential.

Finally, you can’t optimize landscapes without talking about people and labor. The colonial system almost destroyed the intrinsic value of landscape management by bringing new ways of doing agriculture – ways that were the opposite of how Africans farmed.

What do these challenges mean for Africans today?

Everything in Africa can be connected to sustainable food systems, job creation and better health for people. We have seen mass migration from many African landscapes, but particularly from semi-arid regions because of the lack of opportunities. You cannot retain people, particularly youth and women, if the only message they receive from our decision-makers is, “there is no hope for you.” We should tell them there is hope, the resources are there, and we should drive a process to help communities rise from these natural resources.

That’s the reason this event is extremely important: to get the voice of the world to echo the importance of finding ways to support those from arid and poor landscapes, because all the ingredients to create a deep, rapid and profound transformation are with us.

How can these “ingredients” – these resources – be better accessed?

I would start with the landscape approach, which is the default traditional land management approach in Africa. It is being brought back because of evidence that has helped people understand how it is the best way to find the balance between humans, their needs and the environment. The multifunctionality of landscapes is what we are coming back to, and that’s really where we should head in the future.

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