Down in the rice paddies, the idea seemed good. So the visiting experts explained it to puzzled but attentive local farmers. One way of producing more rice per paddy, the scientists suggested, was to plant rice closer together. Why not try it?
They did -- and the rice was planted in a new, close-rowed pattern. But in time it became apparent that one small factor -- simple but crucial -- had been overlooked: Farmers' hoes were too wide to push between the now closely-spaced plants. They could not cultivate properly. And, since they were poor farmers, they weren't able to buy other, narrow-bladed hoes.
To ask the village black-smith to make new ones was so much bother that the farmers simply shrugged . . . and went back to their old ways.
Moral: Although Africa badly needs expert advice to help it grow more food, that advice needs to be based on a thorough, not superficial, knowledge of the people being helped.
``Maybe farmers do what they do now because it suits their particular environment,'' says Bede Okigbo, deputy director-general of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan. ``That's not to say they don't need help,'' he says. ``They do, but existing practices can't just be thrown out the window without being looked at carefully.''
The larger context here is that donor countries have been pouring in aid for decades -- some estimates are $10 billion on emergency food alone in the last 10 years. Yet Africa falls further behind every year in its effort to produce enough food to match its soaring population.
Drought is the catalyst, experts agree. African misgovernment is a major contributor. But so is misdirected outside aid.
For example: On the banks of Lake Turkana in Kenya, a Norwegian aid group decided several years ago to bring Norwegian expertise to bear on the local needs of the Turkana tribe for food and cash. Their plan was to build a fish freezing and processing factory.
Up went the factory walls. In went the first freezer equipment. And along came the problems.
According to United Nations officials, the Norwegians hadn't realized that it was the Luo people, not the Turkana tribe, who did most of the fishing. But the Luo, sensing profit, began using illegal fine-mesh nets to catch large amounts of fish. The Turkana looked for jobs on land.
Apparently unknown to the Norwegians, the Kenyan government had actually been trying to keep the Luo away from fishing to give the Turkana a chance to develop such skills.
The money the Turkanas did make doing odd jobs was used to buy cattle, which began to overgraze local lands, turning them into arid wastes. A shantytown of workers grew up near the freezer factory, bringing beggars and other problems.
Then the Norwegians found that to freeze the fish would require such large quantities of electricity that none would be available for other uses in the area.
The factory was never completed. Today the building is used for storing dried fish -- the same kind of fish local tribes have always handled.
``The Norwegians realize they need more preliminary research before plunging into other projects,'' says one local scientist in Marsabit in northern Kenya.
They have asked UNESCO in Nairobi to carry out research on local conditions before trying a new plan on land use.
``Yes, of course, Africa still needs cash crops for export: coffee, tea, cocoa beans, and all the rest introduced by colonial powers,'' says Dr. Okigbo. ``But if African countries depend too heavily on them, and subsistence crops run down, they empty their treasuries for imported fertilizer while prices for what they export fluctuate.''
A classic case where well-meaning Western scientists overlooked local needs occurred some years ago in Nigeria.
Western scientists recommended that a group of farmers try mucuna, a fast-growing herbaceous legume that fixes nitrogen from the air and thus enriches the soil.
Fine -- except that the plant has no sturdy stem, so that the local people were left without the thin stakes for growing yams that their previous plants had provided, and without materials for tool handles and other purposes.
They tried mucuna once -- but not again.
Certain kinds of high-yielding maize (corn) do not suit some African farmers. It takes longer to mature, and when it does, it is just at that lean time of year when they must dig up yams. They can't do both and so one harvest suffers. While farmers wait for the higher maize yields, they have neither maize nor yams to eat, so they go back to their former types.
``It's fashionable now to recommend that African farmers have larger, more cost-efficient plots of land,'' Okigbo says. ``But land tenure is complex and politically explosive. A father divides his land among a dozen sons, they divide it among their sons, and so on. . . .
``People like small farms because they don't need too much labor or too many tools to work it. If we urge bigger farms, we have to make available cheap, simple tools -- tillers, hoes -- for a start.''
Of course, not all new ideas offered to African farmers go wrong. By no means are all existing practices to be kept.
It is clear, for instance, that the traditional method of ``slash and burn'' agriculture is breaking down under pressure of population growth. Alternatives are urgently needed.
One of the most promising is ``alley-cropping'' -- planting maize, cowpeas, and other crops between hedges of fast-growing nitrogen-fixing plants.
The hedges grow about head-high in a year and act as wind-breaks while dropping rich nutrient leaves onto the soil below. The leaves are also excellent fodder for livestock.
``Alley-cropping works,'' says IITA agronomist George F. Wilson, a Jamaican. ``It's a question now of getting the word out.''
Researchers are discovering that they have a lot to learn from African methods, as well as vice versa. IITA experts are about to launch a study of the way Nigerian women cultivate 50 or more plants to provide proteins and vitamins yearround.
``We need to keep what's good as well as offer what's better,'' Okigbo says.