A critical perspective on agroecology - In conversation with Nassib Mugwanya

A critical perspective on agroecology - In conversation with Nassib Mugwanya

the Netherlands - 24 May, 2022
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

“I want to help smallholders like my grandmother to have access to innovations that can help to feed their families and communities,” says Nassib Mugwanya. After years of working as an outreach officer with smallholders in Uganda, Mugwanya is now a doctoral student at North Carolina State University. Here he talks with Koen Kusters about the importance of innovations for smallholder farming, and the risks of romanticising traditional farming practices.

Which narratives about African smallholders do you encounter in your work?

I think there is some consensus that the situation for smallholders in Africa needs to change. But there are different ideas about how to achieve that transformation. I see two dominant narratives. First there is what I call the productionist paradigm, which essentially says that smallholders need to produce more, for which they need access to better seeds and more fertilizer. According to the second narrative, the problem isn’t so much that smallholders don’t produce enough. It calls for a more holistic approach. The whole food system needs to change, to become fairer. This is also where the concept of agroecology comes in.

You wrote an article in ‘outlook on agriculture’ criticizing agroecology. What is the essence of your criticism?

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I tried to be open minded. I wanted to understand how agroecology could help to achieve change. But I realized that it is essentially arguing for a status quo. It is presented as a model to achieve transformation, but at the same time it limits access to options. It locks people out from advances in science, such as modern inputs, hybrids and genetically modified seeds. We are confronted with changing circumstances due to climate change, and I don’t think that relying on only nature-based approaches gives enough headway to tackle the complex challenges that smallholders face.

How does agroforestry fit into this?

Just like agroecology, we should not be pushing a conservative version of agroforestry in places where it could be detrimental to outcomes for smallholders. Agroforestry would only make sense in places where it can maximize benefits.

Isn’t the problem that the system that brings maximum short term economic benefits may not bring maximum long-term returns, especially when factoring in environmental outcomes?

The concerns about the environment are valid, but the discussion is too narrow. Some genetically modified varieties increase yield while reducing environmental harm. For example, if you use better maize varieties, you do not have to spray pesticides. And, by increasing productivity, you can reduce the amount of land that you need and prevent expansion. Of course, there is much diversity among smallholders and between regions. For some, agroecological practices may be a good fit, but we should not promote it as a blanket approach, because the contextual realities of smallholders in Africa are heterogenous and complex. Agroecology should not become a pair of handcuffs. It’s better to see it as one tool in a toolbox. It shouldn’t be an ideology. We need to be pragmatic. We are all trying to address the same problems. No one side has all the answers. Anyone who claims to have the best solution, is wrong. We cannot be arrogant when dealing with complex problems; we need humility.

The concept of agroecology seems to have been growing momentum in recent years. Why do you think that it is such a powerful narrative?

quote-NM.pngI think the main selling point is its holistic view, that we shouldn’t only focus on production, but also think about social and political aspects of food systems. That is very valuable. Who wouldn’t agree with an approach to farming that is beyond the technical aspects?! That makes it a powerful narrative. However, if we truly want to be holistic, we should not lock our doors to innovations that could help with some of the challenges. The narrative is about social justice, democratizing food systems, and putting farmers at the centre. I like that! But how democratic is it to block farmers from access to innovations if that is what they want? I feel that activists have hijacked the agroecology narrative. And this is potentially dangerous, because it limits people’s options to earn a decent living from agriculture.

Have you worked with young people? Do they even see a future in agriculture?

As an extension officer in Uganda, young people were one of my target audiences. Their perspective to farming is clear: They want to make money. Many young people are reluctant to stay in farming, because they see it as a poverty trap. They see their parents and grandparents, and do not want to live a similar life. My grandparents were smallholders. If you had asked me when I was 18 what I wanted to become, I would have told you anything, except being a farmer. I did not want to be close to what my grandparents were doing. There are people who romanticize that type of farming. No! My grandparents used a hoe because they were poor and couldn’t afford modern equipment. It was physically hard work for extremely little money. The only way to make farming attractive to young people is to innovate, based on scientific advances. Those who promote traditional farming — whatever that means — are out of touch with the real-life farming challenges that smallholder farmers face every single day.

You mentioned your grandparents were smallholders. How does this inform your position?

It is my prime motivation. My grandmother ran a small farm, and during school breaks I would help her. I saw first-hand the struggles that smallholders go through to feed their families. That inspired me to take on this career. I want to help smallholders like my grandmother to have access to innovations that can help to feed their families and communities.

Some argue that investments in non-agricultural sectors may ultimately be the most effective way to get people out of poverty. What do you think?

I have heard that argument before, and I think it is interesting. We tend to think that everyone in the countryside should be farming, but some people are looking for a way out. Farming should not be seen as the only option. I think the argument is helpful, because it forces us to take a broader perspective.

Tropenbos International envisions multifunctional landscapes where smallholders practice a combination of agriculture, agroforestry and community forestry. Is that a realistic vision, according to you?

We need to have an honest conversation. In Uganda, smallholders on the forest frontier are depleting the soils, so they must move on. Farmers will not think twice about cutting down forests when they are hungry and need to feed their families. This type of agriculture is ultimately detrimental to the forest. We need to help them to cultivate agricultural produce without depleting the soils. It should enable them to make a decent living, without further deforestation. When agroforestry provides good income, it can be an attractive option, but it can never be dogmatic. In some cases, other forms of agriculture might provide better opportunities.

How do you see the role of an organization like Tropenbos International?

It is important to make knowledge accessible to everyone. That is a key role for an organization such as Tropenbos International. But knowledge organizations tend to operate on the assumption that there is a knowledge deficit; that people don’t have enough knowledge about farming and the environment, and therefore need to be informed. This approach is problematic. People aren’t destroying forests because they don’t know about environmental values and services. They do know! They often know much more than external actors. We need to have a humbler approach. There is a need to understand the factors that influence smallholders’ options and decisions. Only once we get to the bottom of the problem, can we start designing context specific knowledge packages to solve context specific problems.

Nassib photo.jpgFrom 2014 to 2019, Nassib Mugwanya worked with the National Agricultural Research Organization in Uganda as an outreach officer with smallholders. Since 2019, he is a doctoral student of agricultural and extension education at North Carolina State University in the USA. He is particularly interested in the role of agricultural innovations in transforming small scale farming systems in Africa.