An update from the field by the researcher Sara Costa (Faculty of Agriculture, State University of Milan)

Within the Food We Want project, the State University of Milan is conducting a research to identify good agricultural practices adopted by smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique. The aim is to understand which are the successful strategies adopted by farmers in isolated rural areas to fight poverty, address food security issues and deal with the environmental concerns which negatively impact farm productivity.


We first conducted a literature review in order to have an overview on sustainable agricultural practices in the three countries. The major constraints of Sub Saharan African farmers popped up straight away: poor and unpredictable rainfall, limited access to markets and inputs, soil degradation, pests infestation and poor livestock productivity.

As second step of the research, we selected a sample of smallholder farmers in each country and asked them to fill out a questionnaire, which gave us a picture of the current agricultural system (livestock and cultivation) and a first idea of the sustainable agricultural practices underway.

A field analysis was then carried out in Kenya and Tanzania: I spent 45 days meeting farmers and pastoralists of the intervention areas. The visits to the farms and the interviews that I had with local farmers have helped me to better understand their daily challenges and to collect information on what they are doing to improve crop yields and livestock productivity.


Most of the farmers I met in Tanzania are women. Women traditionally take care of the household, but they are also often responsible for the farm management and leaders of farmers’ associations.

Usually, Tanzanian small farmers adopt mixed farming systems, where crop growth is carried out along with livestock keeping. This integration helps them to recycle materials: crops residues are used as animal feed and manure as organic fertilizer for the soil, thus improving the farm’s efficiency. Most of the products are typically consumed by the family that produce them and only the excess is sold at local markets.

The studied area in Kenya, Kajiado County, traditionally inhabited by Maasai pastoralists, is now occupied also by agro-pastoralists that integrate crop production and livestock keeping, in response to the recent more recurring droughts. They all fight against the lack of water, which characterizes the savannah where they live, and the wildlife encroachment from nearby parks (Amboseli especially). Both phenomena damage their crops and kill their livestock. The dry season forces the Maasai to move in search of fresh grass and water, walking sometimes for dozens of kilometers per day, while during the rainy seasons they can keep the livestock grazing around the ‘boma’, the typical Maasai village.


Tanzanian farmers have started to use alternative methods to control pest infestation in their fields, such as organic insecticides made with local trees (Neem) and herbs (Mexican marigold and a nightshade called ‘Ndulele’ in Swahili), but they are also reducing the pest density in the soil by anticipating land preparation.

In mountain areas stone terraces are built to reduce water flows, while in valley bottoms water is captured through a careful soil preparation: ridges and ditches with straw or other dried material spread over the trenches to help retaining water.

Soil quality is maintained through the use of crop rotation and the mulching of the soil with previous crop residues.

The production of good quality seeds is carried out by villages where farmers have been trained about seed production. A local seed trade is then developed to improve their availability in marginal rural areas. The meticulous seed selection at harvest allow farmers to keep only the best seeds for the next growing season. Seeds are stored mixed with wood ashes, powdered bricks orTithonia spp. leaves.

Cattle is kept in the cowshed all day long (zero-grazing) and fodder is taken to them daily (cut & carry). Moreover, the separation of livestock by age and species allow farmers to better manage animals by keeping and feeding them in the most appropriate way according to their physiological state.


In Kenya, the Maasai are working together to be able to build reservoirs to collect water and thus take the maximum advantage of the rainy seasons.

Livestock diseases are treated with indigenous trees such asAcacia spp. and Uganda greenheart and discarded tires are employed to make handmade livestock mineral dispensers. During the dry season, agro-pastoralist can integrate crop residues in the livestock feed thereby compensating the lack of grass.


At the end of this project, a database will be developed encompassing all the successful agricultural experiences gathered during the two years of the research. It will be integrated into the Food We Want platform so that everyone will be able to add his/her own experience, learn from them and share their knowledge.

An handbook containing a systematic analysis of the investigation results will also be published. It will be the manifesto of the platform and used to disseminate good agricultural practices that have led to positive results.