War for food, war for space – the future for Central Africa?

25 October, 2011 by (comments)

When you fly into the Rwandan capital Kigali, one thing is abundantly clear: land is in short supply.

Is seems as though every inch of this hilly country is under cultivation.

So it is with some justification that some experts are concerned that Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi could be the epicentre of a population time-bomb.

Small and landlocked, with a population density of almost 400 people per square kilometre, it’s only a matter of time before the number of people in these countries exceeds the carrying capacity of the land. From 10,000 feet it looks as though food production in Rwanda has already reached its limit. If there was ever a need for sustainable intensification, it’s here.

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Nteranya Sanginga, the outgoing director of CIAT’s Nairobi-based Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (TSBF), brought the issue into sharp focus yesterday. Speaking at a press briefing at the Consortium for Improved Agricultural Livelihoods in Central Africa (CIALCA) conference in Kigali, he emphasised the high price of failing to nip the problem in the bud, with a chilling message:

“We will be going back to the situation of war – and not because of ethnicity – war for food, war for space,” he said.

This is before you consider additional complicating factors, like climate change.

The only way is up?

The good news is that there are some promising solutions both in the field and in the pipeline.

Climbing beans tick a lot of the right boxes. Growing upwards instead of sprawling outwards like bush beans, climbers make excellent use of limited space. They are also three-times more productive than bush beans, and some improved varieties are resistant to some of the most prevalent bean diseases in the region.

Then there’s the nitrogen-fixing capability of legumes, which helps improve soil fertility – no small matter in Central Africa. Plus, for many people in the region, beans are the primary source of dietary protein and are frequently referred to as the “meat of the poor”.

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Adoption of improved climbing beans developed by the CIAT-led Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance (PABRA), with close support from the Rwanda Agricultural Research Institute (ISAR), has been swift and widespread. In fact, if you drive the 60 km-or-so from Ruhengeri in Northern Rwanda, to Gisenyi on the border of DR Congo, you’ll be flanked by an undulating sea of climbers.

While climbing beans are almost certainly part of the solution to increasing land pressure in Rwanda, they are not a panacea. They will need to be combined with a cocktail of site-specific, climate-smart intensification practices, many of which are being evaluated by CIALCA.

For more, follow the CIALCA conference here.

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Filed Under: Africa, Agro-ecology and Economics, Regions