Blog Post

The many faces of sustainability

Youth in Soil writers share stories from Africa

by Harry Stopes | 25 June 2021

The many faces of sustainability
The Youth in Soil group is a network of young and dynamic voices based in nine African countries, established during the 2019 edition of the Global Soil Week, when youth contributed to the conference through Twitter reporting and blogging on sustainable and climate resilient agriculture. In the early months of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic continued its grip on the continent, the writers were brought together by TMG under its SEWOH Lab project to identify and highlight the effects that the pandemic was having on national and local food systems. The Covid-19 Food/Future initiative saw the writers reporting daily via Twitter and Medium, highlighting ways in which local food system actors were facing grave challenges, but also finding innovative ways to adapt. A report on the first six weeks of the project can be found on the TMG blog. Many of the writers continued to contribute to TMG’s Medium publication, Enabling Sustainability.
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In recent months a smaller group of writers have been brought together once again and invited to take a step back from Covid-19 to reflect with a wider lens on issues relating to food security and agriculture. The writers, from Benin, DRC, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, and Nigeria, published a first set of nine articles in June 2021, highlighting the intersection of agriculture and food with land rights, gender and ecosystem restoration, subjects which also overlap with the research interests of TMG staff.
Pursuing TMG’s interest in land rights in Malawi, where we have a project on human rights based land governance monitoring, Nellie Kanyemba Kapatuka wrote about land law reform in Malawi, sharing local voices reflecting on the process which began in 2021 to review and potentially rewrite land laws that were drawn up in 2016. As Nellie highlighted, gender is a key issue in land governance in Malawi, a country which contains both patrilineal and matrilineal systems of land tenure. Gender is also an important theme of Amanda Namayi’s article on female agripreneurs in Kenya, who are building new businesses using digital tools but facing obstacles such as sexist trolling in the online spaces in which they work. Maya Disraëli shows how the establishment of communal forests on degraded land in Madagascar can provide both environmental and socio-economic benefits to local populations.  
The possibilities offered to farmers by new digital tools are also highlighted by Eden Mvuenga and Malala Onisoa R, who write in French about the ways that agriculture, particularly as practiced by smallholder farmers, can be adapted to changing climate conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar respectively. Eden describes several projects to provide farmers with up to date, locally specific weather information as a crucial tool for adaptation in the context of a changing climate, while Malala shares the perspectives of both farmers and government officials on the possibilities that climate smart agriculture offers Madagascar. While both writers describe some promising progress, they emphasise the need for sustained investment in infrastructure, as well as the provision of credit and secure tenure to farmers, themes which indeed emerge from all our writers.
Writing, unlike her colleagues, with reference to the urban environment, Sharon Cheboi shows how the Covid-19 pandemic vividly demonstrated the precarious nature of the food systems that supply Africa’s major cities such as Nairobi. The development of urban agriculture could help to place the city’s food supply on a firmer footing, as Sharon explains in her situation report, but real progress in this area is hampered by corruption and poor service provision, and in particular by the lack of reliable supplies of clean water.
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All the Youth in Soil writers' work can be read at TMG's Medium publication, Enabling Sustainability
Agriculture, and in particular its implications for the natural resources including soil, also interests our writers Dorcas Abimbola Omole, John Agboola and José Herbert Ahodode. As Dorcas explains, while sustainability is not always adequately prioritised in Nigeria’s commercial agriculture sector, some commercial farmers employ a range of methods to protect and preserve natural resources. Dorcas’ writing complements John’s work, which describes how small-scale ecosystem restoration measures can be built into farming, and Jose’s article on how farmers in Benin adapt their production to a changing climate. Collectively all three writers set out a path forward, in which knowledge, investment, collaborative networks of practitioners, and training are all essential.
Writing about Kirisia forest in Kenya, Atula Owade shows how community-led systems of resource management and the development of nature-based livelihoods can help to minimise conflict over natural resources, ensuring the protection of vital ecosystems while also providing local populations with sustainable livelihoods. What is crucial in this context is the recognition that conservation cannot simply mean the preservation of purportedly ‘pristine’ natural spaces free of human settlement. Whereas in the past the Kenyan government has committed human rights violations in pursuit of a blunt anti human settlement policy in the country’s forests, the authorities in Kirisia worked over the course of about a year to sensitise residents to the need for conservation for the long-term benefit of all, while also preparing structures that protected regulated access and use rights for sustainable livelihoods.
What emerges most strongly from the most recent writing of the Youth in Soil network is the interrelated nature of food security, livelihoods, ecosystems, human rights, land governance and sustainability. Preserving and restoring ecosystems is of little worth if the people living there are left food insecure or without means of financial support; to invest in ecosystem restoration and sustainable agriculture people need secure land tenure and protected land use rights; for such programmes to work, and to be just, they need to incorporate all members of a society, including women and other marginalised groups. The reporting of our network of writers helps us to see more clearly how this can be achieved.
Cover image: Lower Kamula Youth Group greenhouse, Kenya. "Visit to Greenhouse Youth Group with Grand plans" by CGIAR Climate is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Written by Harry Stopes

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