“Food for Thought”: Research that Challenges Common Perceptions of Agriculture in Africa

Micro-summaries of latest research; curated from leading peer-reviewed journals.

3 min readJul 31, 2019

When it comes to buzzwords, I’ll admit I’m totally enamoured by the push to get development practitioners and policymakers to make better use of research findings.

Working for a non-profit myself, I believe decisions based on evidence are a no-brainer. An organisation that integrates evidence into funding decisions will have a higher chance of success, require fewer resources (because mistakes are costly), and most importantly, build a genuine culture of learning and curiosity in the process.

The rigourous and disciplined use of evidence can however be a problem if your organisation is inclined or incentivised (as many non-profits are) to produce new, innovative solutions. Can organisations be innovative and evidence-based at the same time? Yes. But only if they can commit to experimenting, measuring, and learning relentlessly. This post explains how.

In the meantime, here’s a round-up of latest research I consider particularly worth sharing because they the results are rather unexpected — they challenge common perception and put us back in the learners seat. Note: All sources are highly-rated academic journals.

Surprising Findings…

  • Rural Youth in Africa: A fascinating study investigates if claims about the innovative and dynamic character of African rural youth are warranted. It’s an argument often made by NGOs and philanthropists, but is it true? Well, there’s little evidence that it is. The paper uses a large evidence base to shred apart the stereotype that young people are creative, entrepreneurial, and more likely to adopt new technologies.
    [Ouch, that’s gotta hurt anyone under 35!]
  • Water Water Everywhere, But Nowhere in Sight: What if African farmers had enough renewable water sources? Well they do — it’s just in the ground, and much of it at depths of less than 100 metres. Yet most African countries are using a tiny fraction of their renewable groundwater resources. Tanzania for instance uses only 3%, Uganda 2%, and Ethiopia 7.5%. Why? Politics of course. The study makes a compelling case for development actors to instigate a groundwater boom in SSA for irrigation, public health, and drought resilience.
Africa, the not so dry continent
  • School Vegetable Gardens are Great, right? But do they improve nutritional outcomes? A study of 30 schools in Burkina Faso found that although kids improved their knowledge of sustainable agriculture and nutrition, they didn’t eat more fruit and vegetables. This could be because vegetables aren’t grown all year round due to poor water infrastructure. Still, the findings confirm those of another major review of the impact of school gardens.

Not So Surprising, But Good to Know…

  • Inorganic Fertilser: Adding to growing set of literature are two new studies on the pitfalls and limitations of inorganic fertiliser use. This time for Zambia. A study on the country’s fertiliser subsidy programme found that farmers receiving it were much less likely to use agroecological practices like fallowing and intercropping maize with other crops. Broadly speaking the fertiliser subsidy dis-incentivised use of sustainable soil fertility practices. Another study, found that independent of the subsidy, Zambian farmers don’t buy inorganic fertiliser because it doesn’t really work. It’s effectiveness depends heavily on soil characteristics. Suggests explanations of chronically low fertilizer use in Africa away from “market failure”, towards discussions on improving fertilizer efficacy.




Thoughts about charities, aid, and sustainable development. Finding a comfy seat between research and relevance. Come for the articles, stay for the poetry.