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close this book2020 Vision Focus 4 - Promoting Sustainable Development in Less-Favored Areas (IFPRI, 2000, 18 p.)
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View the documentBrief 1 of 9 - November 2000 - Overview
View the documentBrief 2 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 3 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Tropical Andes
View the documentBrief 4 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the Southeast Asian Uplands
View the documentBrief 5 of 9 - November 2000 - Returns to Public Investment: Evidence from India and China
View the documentBrief 6 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for Semiarid South Asia
View the documentBrief 7 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for the East African Highlands
View the documentBrief 8 of 9 - November 2000 - Development Strategies for West Africa
View the documentBrief 9 of 9 - November 2000 - The Role of Agricultural Science

Brief 2 of 9 - November 2000 - Technologies for the East African Highlands

Frank Place

Frank Place is an economist at the International Centre for Research on Agroforestry (ICRAF), Nairobi, Kenya.

The East African highlands consist of areas above 1,200 meters in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, northern Tanzania, and Uganda. They occupy about one-fourth of the land area in East Africa and are home to 53 percent of the population of these countries. Rural population densities in the East African highlands are the highest in Africa (well over 500 per square kilometer in areas). As a consequence, farm sizes are small throughout the highlands, averaging around one hectare. Most of the highlands have favorable rainfall compared with the rest of Africa. Rainfall averages over 1,000 millimeters per year in most of the highlands, and many sites have two growing seasons ("bimodal highlands"). There are a variety of soil types, though most are clayey with relatively good stability. As a consequence, most of the highlands are considered to be medium- to high-potential areas and are expected to be major breadbasket regions. Topography of the highlands varies widely, often within small geographical areas. Much farming takes place on steeply sloping land.

A large range of agricultural crops is found in the highlands, especially in the bimodal highlands, where cash crops such as tea, coffee, dairy, sugar cane, fruits, and other horticultural crops are common. In the drier zones, these crops are less profitable and less common. The chief food crops are maize, banana, beans, teff, wheat, sorghum, cassava, and potatoes. Individual farms in most of the highlands grow a diverse set of crops, regardless of how commercially oriented the farm or region. The highlands attract a good share of regional agricultural research resources. Many countries have strong national research programs, along with international centers and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) involved in technology development.


At the farm level, the core problems are much the same as elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa: the complex reinforcing problems of poverty, low agricultural productivity, and natural resource degradation. Poverty is widespread in the highlands and has been exacerbated by civil strife in Ethiopia, Uganda, and especially Burundi and Rwanda. Actual crop yields, especially of food crops, fall much below their potential. Low agricultural productivity is related to poverty, which leads to use of inferior seeds, lack of irrigation, lack of fertilizer use, and increased pests and diseases. Soil fertility decline through nutrient depletion and soil erosion is pervasive. Major pests and diseases have recently expanded, including coffee wilt, potato blight, cassava mosaic, and striga and stem borers in maize.


The types of technologies that are feasible and effective depends on the agroclimatic environment. It is useful to distinguish two highland zones: (1) high-potential areas with bimodal and high average rainfall and soils that are not highly acidic, and (2) low-potential areas, mainly the drier highland areas. A further distinction will be made according to the degree of market access, as this affects the profitability of different technologies.

High-Potential Highlands

Given the wide range of enterprises and the relatively less risky ecological environment in the high-potential highlands, technologies that increase the productivity of existing enterprises are highly beneficial and attractive to small-scale farmers. Such technologies or packages must be low cost. since credit is largely unavailable to smallholders, but farmers have some flexibility with land and labor if good opportunities arise.

Rising productivity may result from technological change related to any of the following areas: improved crop, tree, and livestock germplasm or breeds, better pest and disease control, improved soil fertility, better conservation of soils, and improved water management.

The largest efforts by national research systems, as well as by a number of international research programs, are geared toward improved crop germplasm. Breeding programs have increased yields and improved resistance to pests and diseases: recently released varieties include wilt-resistant coffee, high-yielding maize, and blight-resistant potato. The literature suggests that among smallholders, pest- and disease-resistant germplasm have had more impact than high-yielding varieties. The response of the high-yielding varieties on-farm has been disappointing, owing in part to poor soil fertility.

The Kenyan highlands are Africa's success story with respect to improved dairy cattle. Several projects supply highland communities with high-quality bulls; recipients pay back with calves instead of cash. Growth in dairy production is currently high in Uganda, and the domestic market has high potential for growth in most countries of East and Central Africa. Production of other types of livestock is also growing.

Aside from breeding, other methods have been used to further address pest and disease problems. Two traditional methods, crop rotation and intercropping, are being modified or reintroduced in some cases. Examples include mucuna-maize and faba bean-wheat rotations in Ethiopia. Tephrosia is also being used to ward off moles and insects, and neem products are used to thwart several pests. Most of these technologies have had only localized effects, because scaling them up to wider areas requires considerable informational efforts.

Soil fertility is a major problem. Lack of cash and inefficient markets keep small farmers from using more fertilizer, except for the most profitable crops. As a result researchers are working to identify inexpensive ways of improving nutrient management and organic nutrient production, such as improved fallows, biomass transfer, crop residue management, manure management, and composting. Improved fallow systems have a niche during the short rainy season in the bimodal highlands and are labor saving, whereas biomass transfer, crop residue management, and composting are more labor intensive. There is also a limit on the biomass produced under such transfer systems, but farmers have used them on smaller plots of higher-value crops.

The vast sloping areas of the highlands mean that for long-term sustainability of agriculture, soil conservation is called for. Current solutions range from labor-intensive bench terracing to less labor-demanding natural vegetative strips. Stone walls and perennial tree crop systems also play an important role. Use of soil conservation measures is common in Kenya, where heavy government investment has taken place. However, little diffusion or adoption occurs in the region in the absence of such public investment. Less costly methods such as natural vegetative strips seem to offer more promise.

There is large untapped potential for irrigation in the highlands. Indigenous systems are still found among smallholders on Mount Kilimanjaro, though many are in need of renovation. Most other irrigation has either been set up by governments on a pilot basis or been established by larger-scale commercial farmers. Pump technology is not common and is restricted to wealthier farmers. Simple irrigation techniques for small home gardens are being tested, but it is too early to tell how promising they may be.

Low-Potential Highlands

Low-potential highlands suffer from low and unreliable rainfall, allowing for only a single growing season and limiting the range of profitable enterprises. In areas where markets are functioning reasonably well, expanding the set of income-generating enterprises may be more important than in the high-potential areas since new enterprises can help to reduce farmers' exposure to climatic or market risks.

Much of what was said about germplasm improvement for the high-potential highlands also applies in the low-potential highlands. There is high demand for germplasm that is tolerant of pests and diseases as well as drought tolerant. Examples of farmer adoption of such varieties exist (such as mosaic-tolerant cassava), but drought-resistant local varieties offer strong competition. There is less adoption of higher-grade livestock in the low-potential zone except in areas with good market access, where savings in transport costs can overcome more costly production. Trees offer some potential in this zone because their dense and deep rooting systems normally enable them to pro vide some products even in drought conditions. Production of wood, nuts, and fruits are examples of attractive opportunities in areas of good market access in this zone.

Low soil fertility is again a serious problem in the lower-potential highlands. The use of mineral fertilizers is lower in this zone because of the lack of cash crops in the farming systems, lower expected payoffs, and higher risks than in high-potential areas. Aside from animal manure, organic methods of supplying nutrients are also more problematic. Biomass transfer, crop residue management, and composting systems suffer from a timing problem, since a single rainy season prevents biomass from being grown in one season for use in the following season. Improved fallows are only feasible in areas where farm sizes are sufficiently large to permit longer-term fallowing. In densely populated low-potential areas, the demand for organic materials for animal fodder or fuel is high, and these materials are often scarce, limiting their availability for soil fertility management.

Soil conservation efforts are needed in the lower-potential zones as well. There is potentially more scope for labor-intensive conservation measures, provided that the work can be undertaken in the off season and that there is a slack labor period at the time. In addition, because they conserve scarce water, soil conservation structures often are more profitable in lower-rainfall areas. Natural or planted vegetative strips may not be as suited to low-potential areas, since they take time to establish and become effective, but they are attractive in some areas. Many farmers do invest in conservation structures in parts of the highlands, but they are often poorly maintained or not widely adopted.

In the drier highlands, water management is an important issue. Where such areas are fed by wetter highlands, population pressure in the wetter areas generates increased competition for water. In other areas individual farmers are pumping water from streams, shallow wells, and small ponds, using simple drip irrigation for small plots and using small microcatchments for single or multiple plants. Some of these technologies are capital intensive and restricted to use by wealthier farmers.

In conclusion, lower and more risky productivity in the lower-potential highlands means that technologies cannot aim strictly at enhancing the profits of existing enterprises. Successful technologies must also reduce risks to farmers. Improved water harvesting and management techniques are key, as are those that can either reduce labor during the rainy season or offer income during the dry season.

For further information see AgriForum, a newsletter of the Association for the Strengthening of Agricultural Research in East and Central Africa (ASARECA), which can be accessed at or by contacting ASARECA at P.O. Box 765, Entebbe, Uganda, or at; SPORE, a newsletter of the Centre Technique de Cooperation Agricole et Rural (CTA), Wageningen, Netherlands, which can be accessed at or by emailing; and D. Hoekstra and J. D. Corbett, "Sustainable Agricultural Growth for the Highlands of East and Central Africa: Prospects to 2020" (International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., 1995), mimeo.