How Africa Might Feed Itself

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`WHO says Africa can't feed itself?'' shouts Gus Nilsson as the 6 ft., 4 in. Swedish farmer strides through rows of lush fruits and vegetables on his five-hectare (12 1/2-acre) nursery in dry Botswana. Mr. Nilsson believes not only that Africa doesn't need industrialization and mechanization to succeed, but that those popular development strategies will only ensure its demise.

``Rich countries want to mechanize Africa, but it's too expensive for these nations,'' he says. ``It has to be subsidized and the governments have to go begging to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Africa can never stand on its own feet if it mechanizes, because it will always be dependent on the outside. With my methods you can develop horticulture without imported machinery and then not have inflation.''

Nilsson is not just an idealist. E.F. Schumacher proposed 16 years ago in his book ``Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered'' that people of developing countries should not be put into factories but rather should work at home, grow their own food, and provide for their needs without disrupting their traditional life styles. Nilsson not only espouses the same philosophy but also has a detailed blueprint of how everyone in Africa can stay away from cities and assembly-line jobs.

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It's called ``the productive homestead.''

``What I'm thinking of is not employment but self-employment, the system that Africa has had for thousands of years,'' he explains.

It all starts with 1,000 square meters (about a quarter acre) of land. The owner uses one-third of it to build his house and the rest for crops, fish ponds, poultry, small industry, or whatever combination that will enable him or her (women are commonly heads of households in Africa) to feed himself, earn an income, and contribute to the community. Even the house itself is productive, with all of the walls containing built-in planters in which Nilsson grows everything from decorative ferns to lush tomatoes.

Nilsson is not just talk. He has proven his point here in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana, at his own homestead which is also a nationally known nursery called ``Sanitas: The Green Diamonds of Botswana.'' It offers produce, plants, and flowers.

He does not keep his success a secret. He writes to local leaders and international aid agencies about his idea. Even Soviet President Gorbachev can expect a letter any day now.

``If I could go to the farmers directly, I could do it tomorrow,'' he claims. ``But I have to convince the government, which has the capital.''

After 21 years in the country, his experiment is finally being repeated by Africans.

``Now it's coming, although slowly because of the government bureaucracy,'' he says confidently. ``Maybe in two or three years you will see a lot of this going on. Even other countries are becoming interested. The minister of agriculture from Zimbabwe was here and soon some people from Zambia will visit.''

Botswana is a particularly difficult country in which to persuade people to invest in horticulture. The landlocked nation of 1.2 million has recently become rich with the discovery of diamonds, and the 80 percent who live in rural areas have historically relied on cattle raising for which the land is most suitable. The people have had little incentive to invest in crops because the country has more drought years than good rainfall years and only 5 percent of the land is arable. But that has little significance for Nilsson.

``You can build on a rock; you don't need arable land,'' he says. ``And Botswana has plenty of water.''

Not everyone knows what to make of Nilsson, but even his critics admire him. Tswelopele Moremi, coordinator of the Rural Development Unit in Botswana's Ministry of Finance, says emphatically, ``Gus Nilsson is not an idealist; I plan to use his methods on my own farm.''

David Inger, managing director of Rural Industries Promotions, says Nilsson expects too much of the government. ``The problem is that he has a lot of good ideas, but they need a lot of follow-through capacity.''

Nilsson promotes two methods to save water. One is planting in cement benches filled with river sand that retains moisture. The other is plowing strips of land, using a tractor only once, and then annually loosening the rows, leaving alternate spaces firm so that water will run off onto the planted strips.

With the financial assistance of foreign governments, the United Nations Development Program, and the Botswana government, productive homesteads are being built in more than 10 areas of Botswana.

``In five years we want donors to come see our homesteads, bakeries, poultry projects, and bench crops,'' said a woman who is one of 56 rural residents 60 miles southwest of Gaborone who are building a new community called Mmamokhasi. The government constructed a small dam, and United Nations project money provided irrigation. The people built a water tank and 20 cement benches that are filled with healthy vegetables. Their enthusiasm is now being tested, as their financial assistance has been reduced to a trickle.

Nilsson has calculated the cost, crop output, real estate value, earned income, loan requirements, and payback rates right down to the last pula (the Botswana currency, which means ``rain'' in Setswana). He estimates that a village can be 80 percent self-sufficient, and 20 percent of products and services could be bartered. Fifty percent of national employment would be self-employment, while the rest would involve small industries and government service.

`THE idea is that your productive homestead would be a part-time job, and then you would work three days a week,'' says Nilsson. ``I've suggested to the government that they have three-day shifts per week in the public and private sectors.''

Nilsson grew up on a farm in Sweden, and it was exactly 50 years ago that he got his first job at a nursery at age 11 - a lifetime of experience. He received a masters in science and a PhD in philosophy from Cornell University. He was one of the first FAO experts to arrive in Botswana in 1967, one year after the country became independent.

His family has worked together to build their productive homestead. His wife Sieglinde is also from a farming family, originally from East Germany. Their grown son Mattias works full-time at the nursery, and Kent will return soon from school abroad. Both have studied horticulture.

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