Knowledge for better food systems

Benefits of re-booting tropical agriculture

This paper by FCRN member Roger Leakey proposes a three-stage process to improve smallholder incomes, yields, nutrition and environmental performance in tropical agriculture, focusing on Africa. Leakey argues that food policies developed in industrialised nations do not always recognise that farming systems are very different across the world.

The three-stage process is:

  1. Plant leguminous trees and shrubs to enhance soil nitrogen, reduce soil erosion and produce outputs such as wood for fuel and leaves for fodder.
  2. Select and domesticate indigenous tree species to produce outputs that can be sold for cash, thus increasing household income at the same time as improving soil health.
  3. Use the resulting income to purchase fertilisers to increase the yields of staple food crops by 300-600%. 



Environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and climate change threaten the stability of our planet. Inappropriate approaches to food production interact with hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty, especially in the tropics and sub-tropics. These approaches, in turn, enhance social deprivation and limit rural development, both of which are drivers of economic migration and civil conflict. Exacerbated by population growth, food systems lie at the heart of these global issues. Here, a planet-proofing approach developed in Africa is presented that illustrates that it is possible to diversify and rehabilitate degraded farmland with species producing highly nutritious and marketable traditional foods in ways that improve food production by conventional staple food crops. Furthermore, it rebuilds agroecological functions and creates new local business opportunities to kick-start rural economies and enhance social well-being. Together, these benefits promote livelihoods and social justice, the mitigation of and/or adaptation to climate change, and the provision of wildlife habitat. This approach offers a highly adaptable model that enhances past investments in the Green Revolution in ways that address both the environmental and social constraints limiting both mainstream agriculture in Africa — and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals globally.



Leakey, R.R., 2020. A re-boot of tropical agriculture benefits food production, rural economies, health, social justice and the environment. Nature Food, 1(5), pp.260-265.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource building block What is sustainable intensification?

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The 54 countries in Africa – from the dry northern African nations, through those in deserts and rainforests, all the way to the temperate parts of South Africa – are hugely varied in their ethnic, cultural, climatic, geographic, and economic aspects. The continent’s population of over a billion inhabitants, with a median age of 19.7 years, is the youngest in the world. Due to both its localised epidemics of hunger and its huge untapped agricultural potential, Sub-Saharan Africa specifically is a key focus area for many NGOs and development agencies interested in food production and security.

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