Climate Smart Agriculture — Scaling Up Regenerative Agriculture in Nigeria

Clean Technology Hub
8 min readMay 10, 2024

*Desmond Bardeson Dogara

Introduction

Agriculture is the main source of livelihood for the majority of Nigeria’s labour force. More than 80% of farmers in the country are smallholders who grapple with fragmented lands, poor soil fertility, weeds, pests, and diseases. These problems are usually, to the best of their knowledge, tackled using inorganic fertilisers and chemical pesticides/herbicides, which further exacerbate poor soil health and compound soil infertility.

These farmers also have to deal with the effects of climate change, such as temperature increases, irregular and unpredictable rainfall patterns, flooding of riverbanks, drought and desertification, frequent extreme weather events, and biodiversity loss. These have further affected the productivity of smallholder farms. Unless urgent measures are taken to address these challenges, Nigeria’s food security and by extension, its economy, is at great risk.

One-third of the world’s topsoil is already degraded and experts estimate that unless drastic actions are taken, the whole global topsoil will be completely degraded within 60 years ‒ a scenario that will reduce our ability to filter water, absorb carbon emissions and produce high-quality food. In Nigeria, about 350,000 hectares of land is lost each year to desertification. Desert encroachment, which until now, only threatens the Northern region, is advancing Southwards at a rate of 0.6 kilometres per year due to deforestation, over-cultivation and overgrazing.

What is Regenerative Agriculture?

Regenerative Agriculture (RegenAg) is a system of farming principles and practices that offers increased yields, resilience to climate instability, and improved health and vitality for farming communities. This is achieved by improving the soil’s nutrient (especially organic carbon) content, increased moisture retention capacities, and better use of cover plants and residues. At the highest level of RegenAg, entire landscapes are regenerated by changing entire farming systems, moving to agroforestry, creating key-points and key lines for holding water, and re-orientation of the whole production land for better outputs. Where RegenAg techniques have been implemented at scale they have profoundly impacted whole ecosystems with financial, environmental, and social benefits.

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According to one study, foods grown under regenerative practices contained, on average, more magnesium, calcium, potassium and zinc and more vitamins. Researchers also show that crops grown in regenerative farms were lower in elements broadly detrimental to human health, including sodium, cadmium and nickel, compared with those grown conventionally.

Essentially, RegenAg aims at positive environmental impact on the farm, including against damage to soil health, over-exploitation of water resources, and high chemical residue levels in food. Currently, more than 15 million smallholder farmers across the developing world using RegenAg practices are said to have declared impressive benefits.

Famous practices in regenerative agriculture

1. Cycle Nutrient practice: Most regenerative agriculture systems try to cycle nutrients, carbon and water within the farming system as much as possible. Harnessing natural cycles and control systems minimises the need for external inputs like fertilisers and pesticides (especially synthetic ones). Consequently, this also minimises negative impacts on biodiversity and pollution of waterways due to runoff.

2. Mixed farming: Consequently, regenerative agriculture usually integrates crop and livestock farming to maximise the use and efficiency of crop residues as animal feed and bedding, and that of manure to return nutrients to pastures and fields.

3. Conservation tillage, minimised tillage and no-till: As the Climate Reality Project describes it, the aim of reducing or avoiding tillage is to ‘mess with it [the soil] less’. This leaves the soil’s layers undisturbed and can protect vulnerable soil from erosion and compaction. It can also save fuel and allow farmers to use lighter machinery.

4. Crop rotation and cover crops practice: For many farmers, diversified crop rotation has become an imperative for conventional and alternative farming systems alike. Crop rotation is appealing when chemical weed management options become fewer and less effective in mono-crop systems because diversity brings ecological functions. Never leaving the soil bare is often emphasised in regenerative agriculture, making cover crops an essential to regenerative agriculture rotations.

5. Use of mulch, compost, green manure or crop residues: In a similar vein, adding mulch, compost or green manure — crops that are grown for the sole purpose of being incorporated in the soil — keeps the ground covered, adds and preserves organic matter and nutrients in the soil.

Systems approaches to Regenerative Agriculture

1. 1. Agroforestry/Silvopasture:

Agroforestry involves a number of different techniques. If trees, shrubs, palms and bamboo are integrated into the agricultural landscape, it is agroforestry. The ultimate goal is to diversify and sustain production for increased social, economic and environmental benefits. Silvopasture is a form of agroforestry that involves intentionally managing livestock, trees and forage in the same productive space. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service describes it as an intentional, intensive, interactive and integrated farming system. The common activities and themes under this approach are managed grazing and pasture cropping.

2. Agroecology

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies agroecology as a science and defines it as management that involves applying social, economic, and environmental principles to the relationship between plants, animals, humans, and the environment for food security and nutrition. It seeks to optimise the interactions between plants, animals, humans, and the environment while also addressing the need for socially equitable food systems within which people can exercise choice over what they eat and how and where it is produced. Agroecology is concurrently a science, a set of practices, and a social movement and has evolved as a concept over the past few decades to expand in scope from a focus on fields and farms to encompass the entirety of agriculture and food systems. It now represents a transdisciplinary field that includes the ecological, socio-cultural, technological, economic, and political dimensions of food systems, from production to consumption. Agroecology brings solutions to multiple Sustainable Development Goals: poverty alleviation; zero hunger, food security, nutrition, and health; climate change resilience; biodiversity; youth engagement; gender self-determination; and human rights.

3. Permaculture

The Permaculture Research Institute describes it as “integrating landscape and people’s needs sustainably by observing and imitating well-functioning natural ecosystems. Permaculture has a philosophical aspect, and in principle, it is similar to nature-based solutions and takes a holistic approach to the design of land and agricultural systems that are first nature-centric.

Scaling Regenerative Agriculture in Nigeria

The intervention in regenerative agriculture is anticipated to involve at least 200,000 farmers across 10 states in Nigeria. The regenerative initiative, the first of its kind in Nigeria, will be piloted across Kano, Cross River, Jigawa, Kaduna, Bauchi, Katsina, Kebbi, Benue, Niger, and Plateau states. The new agricultural technology, which inherently enhances on-farm biodiversity and water storage capacity, will also enhance farmers’ productivity and food security in the country.

The agricultural biotechnology project is anchored by Dantata Foods and Allied Products Company Limited, in partnership with RegenFARM Limited, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office of the British Government under its agricultural sector intervention (LINKS Project).

The tripartite partnership aims to increase quality food production, enhance export opportunities for Nigeria’s agricultural commodities, and improve soil fertility, nutrient content, and organic matter.

Besides, biotechnology will rescue Nigeria from the challenges of soil degradation through flooding, erosion, and continued cultivation, which reduce farmers’ productivity and yields.

There are strong foundations for regenerative agriculture across the African continent, and many of the processes and practices of regenerative agriculture are broadly aligned with a wide array of existing smallholder techniques, thus offering the opportunity to build on existing good practices easily. Actionable recommendations for scaling up the adoption of regenerative agriculture in Nigeria include:

1. Bridge knowledge gap: Building an open-access knowledge store of validated regenerative agriculture resources. There is a need to establish an open-access, scientifically validated knowledge store for regenerative agriculture that farmers can draw upon in the adoption process. This centralised knowledge store should be co-designed with farmers and draw on their empirical validation, allowing them to become the primary agents of design rather than the recipients of imposed agricultural trials led by external experts.

2. Create demonstration farms and farmer-led extension programmes: Informed by local farmer-led regenerative designs and technical experimentations, demonstration farms will act as extension facilities and research hubs for farmers wanting to transition to regenerative agriculture. These farms may serve as centres for experimentation and validation of particular techniques within specific ecological, climatic and socio-political contexts and as demonstrations of the more widely applicable design processes.

3. Incorporate partnerships: Building new coalitions and leveraging on existing positive partnerships between science, technology, business, government and citizen farmers should be worked upon and encouraged. Nigeria’s first regenerative agriculture intervention in Nigeria involved a tripartite partnership between Dantata Foods, RegenFARM Limited and the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office of the British Government. This in itself is self-promising in the agricultural sector. Nigeria can increase the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices by establishing new partnerships that shift the action’s focal point from non-farming stakeholders to farmers.

Conclusion

More investment is needed to accelerate the widespread adoption of regenerative agriculture practices, and farmers, policymakers, and agricultural companies need to work together.

Today, farmers carry a heavy burden of costs — seeds, equipment, and overheads, for example — and take much of the risk of growing food crops despite uncertainty about weather, water and market prices. Changing farm practices brings greater costs at the start. Despite that, larger farms and progressive growers are forging ahead.

The transition can’t be left to farmers alone. The governments need to support them by rethinking existing farming policies to make regenerative agriculture economically attractive. Subsidies can be restructured to incentivize farmers to phase out soil-degrading practices in favour of approaches that build healthy, fertile soil while sequestering carbon.

The private sector also has an important role. Companies including Syngenta Group can take a lead by delivering a set of starter regenerative solutions that generate measurable results for farmers within one growing season. At Syngenta Group, they engage farmers by working closely alongside them. They do this both in the field — by bringing them knowledge and tools — and off the land — for example, by helping integrate farmers into the food supply chain via partnerships and collaborations.

Going forward, this division should be interpreted as a clarion call for increased research, particularly in grey areas — such as standardising the efficacy of a range of regenerative agriculture techniques in an integrated manner over large areas — knowing fully well that it is science and not our emotions that will lead us to our desired farming future.

Desmond Bardeson Dogara is Senior Manager, Energy Access at Clean Technology Hub.

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Clean Technology Hub

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