The science of growing food in Africa

How a UQ research project is changing lives

For most of the world’s poorest people, 'how to grow food' is a question of life and death.

Aside from the largely recreational interest in gardening, most of us aren't required us to produce food for ourselves.

The most basic of necessities (the need to eat), requires as much knowledge as knowing the local supermarket's trading hours.

This is not the case for millions of people in low income countries, who do not have access to cheap, reliable and safe food to eat.

Australia has some of the world’s more variable climates, and some of its poorest soils yet we produce roughly three times more food than we need, and we do it more efficiently than many competing countries.

Queensland agricultural scientists are world leaders in their field, and have particular expertise in tropical climates. They are the perfect people to help end hunger overseas.

It is this scientific expertise that is being put to work in SIMLESA: an international Research for Development (R4D) project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).

SIMLESA is a partnership between The University of Queensland, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and the governments of Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique.

The SIMLESA approach

In Africa, the story of food is totally different. Traditional farming systems need to be updated for today’s climate and market challenges.

Some people can’t find good quality seeds while others are unsure when to plant them or how to space them properly. It’s also a huge problem managing weeds when all you have are your hands and a hoe, and most people grow the same crop in the same field every year.

But despite the challenges, there is also hope.

People in Africa have worked tirelessly to address these problems. Governments, Non Government Organisations (NGOs) and private enterprise are working together to lift people out of poverty.

While access to quality seeds, planting and weeds may seem like basic issues - every day men, women and children are malnourished, stunted, unable to fight off sickness, and even dying because of them.

How can small changes solve these problems, and in the process improve people’s lives? These are the questions Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) research officer Dr Caspar Roxburgh is trying to answer.

“You can’t grow enough food for your family if you plant late. You miss the season so you’re already playing catch up. But even if you get it right, it won’t work if the plants are too crowded,” Dr Roxburgh said.

It sounds like basic stuff, but Dr Roxburgh explains that the exact details of best practice change everywhere you go in Africa. While it's been worked out in Australia, a lot of this research just hasn’t been done yet in Africa.

“We work with the farmers in Africa. We find out who’s doing the best, learn from them, and then we do the science to back it all up.”

Dr Caspar Roxburgh

Each small change adds up to a bigger impact for families and communities. The research is holistic, looking at each problem as part of a connected system.

“This is a complete overhaul of the system. In some of these communities, people were just figuring it out by themselves," he said.

"They have little education, no computers with internet, no credit access and have a hard time reaching markets. Could you imagine running a business in those conditions?

"But we know how to grow food in these environments, the answers are there, we just need to adapt them and share that knowledge with the people.”

ACIAR's general manager Melissa Wood with QAAFI's SIMLESA project manager Daniel Rodriguez examining maize harvested from a SIMLESA trial site in Tanzania.

ACIAR's general manager Melissa Wood with QAAFI's SIMLESA project manager Daniel Rodriguez examining maize harvested from a SIMLESA trial site in Tanzania.

But the question remains: Are we actually helping people?

In June 2017, representatives from governments, scientific institutions, donor organisations, and private industry met in the Tanzanian city of Arusha to take stock on the SIMLESA project’s achievements and implications for the future. Dr Roxburgh was at the meeting.

Listen to the audio story, which takes you to Tanzania to hear the voices of SIMLESA:

Dr Caspar Roxburgh produced this audio story from the SIMLESA meeting in Tanzania. 

These kinds of numbers can sound big, but mean nothing. However, Dr Roxburgh explains that the work UQ and its partners are doing with the support of ACIAR can change people’s lives.

Farming is the principal occupation of the bottom billion people in the world. They are the very same people who are less likely to have received an education, more likely to die from preventable and treatable diseases, and they live in remote areas with poor infrastructure often without electricity or plumbing.

"All of these facts make it harder for them to grow their food, and harder for governments and businesses to help them," Dr Roxburgh said.

"But we can help them. This is why we work, this is what we have to change to make the world a better place.”

More information:

Dr Caspar Roxburgh

Research Officer
Centre for Plant Science
QAAFI, The University of Queensland
View researcher profile

QAAFI is a joint initiative between the Queensland Government and The University of Queensland.