Source China Daily

BEIJING, China--For Solomon Yokamo and his fellow students, the solution to feeding Africa's growing population could be found in a plot of farmland about 400 kilometers southwest of Beijing.

The Ethiopian, who is majoring in resources utilization and plant protection as a postgraduate student at China Agricultural University, said he arrived in the country hoping to understand how China managed to attain food security and feed about one fifth of the world's population with only 9 percent of the world's arable land.

He was one of 48 graduate students from 10 African countries who studied at the National Academy of Agricultural Green Development of the CAU, as China stepped up efforts to help the continent meet the challenge of agricultural production and food security.

"I knew I would work with some of the best minds on crop sciences in China. I did not know I would work with farmers who could barely understand what I was trying to say," the 29-year-old said.

The students were taking part in a program known as Sino-Africa Science and Technology Backyard, a project designed to empower smallholder farmers for the intensification of sustainable agriculture.

The project, located in Quzhou county, Hebei province, offered students firsthand experience of agricultural practices in China: they lived on a farm and grew crops with farmers, trying to introduce to them better practices, varieties and methods.

"We hope that they can truly understand China's immense achievements in its agricultural sector, and how the nation managed to attain its food self-sufficiency," said Jiang Rongfeng, a professor at the CAU's College of Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Jiang said the project sought to help students identify challenges facing their home countries in achieving food security, before encouraging them to come up with their own solutions.

"For China to revitalize its rural areas, an abundant supply of talent is the most important. The same goes for Africa to attain food security," he said.

Bridging the gap

The Science and Technology Backyard, first launched by the CAU in Quzhou in 2009, allows students to apply their academic knowledge to maximize crop yields along with farmers playing an active role in finding and co-developing their own solutions.

From 2009 to last year, the average yield of wheat in Quzhou rose from 5,670 kilograms per hectare to 8,450 kg. Corn yields increased from 6,435 kg per hectare to 9,920 kg.

The university went on to establish a total of 480 science and technology backyards covering 135 kinds of major crops in 23 provinces and regions with the participation of 48 scientific research institutes and over 300 agricultural extension stations in China by the end of last year.

Professor Jiang said the success of its STB project attracted widespread interest, and the university received support from organizations such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations to promote its experience in Africa.

Solomon Yokamo and his fellow students were among the first group of 34 African students enrolled at the program starting in 2019. They spent their first year studying theoretical lessons at the university's Beijing campus before being encouraged to put what they have learned into practice in a village in Quzhou.

Solomon Yokamo, who had served as a researcher at South Agricultural Research Institute in Ethiopia, described his experience at the CAU as eye-opening. 

The Ethiopian was devoted to research on the influence of organic and chemical fertilizer on maize yields and soil properties in China and Africa, and has found the experience living in a rural village and working with farmers more than enlightening.

"When you live in a rural community, you can learn about much more than agricultural technology and you can also simply learn through structured observation. It was like a session in which you immerse yourself in the culture, the language, and the way that people live and work," he said.

He remembered fondly how the farmers would jokingly interact with him on a daily basis, and how he, with his broken Chinese, replied awkwardly.

He said the 10-month stay made Quzhou county his favorite place, and he acquired solid scientific knowledge and developed strong emotional bonds with farmers during the process.

The most important takeaway for Solomon Yokamo and his fellow students during the experience is how China managed to dramatically increase its grain production and attain food security over a time span of decades.

Lessons from China

He said the group identified poor soil fertility and high land degradation as the prime challenges for Africa's grain production, coupled with threats including limited access to irrigation, a lack of credit access, underdeveloped rural infrastructure, locust invasions, and political instability.

Jiao Xiaoqiang, an associate professor at the CAU who is also a coordinator with the STB project, said the project also sought to present to the students key lessons from China's experience in agricultural development-the resource-environment costs of food production are very large with land expansion and overuse of chemical fertilizers.

The effective approach to move agriculture toward sustainable intensification in Africa is to increase grain yield per unit of land area rather than expansion of agricultural land, he said.

Africa has 64 percent of the global arable land but produces less than 10 percent of its food locally due to inherently low soil nutrient concentrations, he added.

"With climatic conditions that are suitable for crop growth, Africa has great potential for increased food production. Empowering smallholder farmers to increase grain yields in Africa is the only way to increase food production and achieve food self-sufficiency on the continent," he said.

The Sino-Africa Science and Technology Backyard is only part of broader steps launched by China to help Africa train its talent on agricultural production. Since 2012, 7,456 African trainees have received agricultural training in China, said a white book released by the State Council Information Office last year.

Through projects such as sending Chinese agricultural experts to Africa, more than 50,000 Africans have been trained and 23 agricultural demonstration centers have been built, the white book said.

In moving forward poverty alleviation and agricultural development in Africa, President Xi Jinping announced last year the nation is set to establish a number of China-Africa joint centers for modern agricultural technology exchange, demonstration and training in China. The nation will send 500 agricultural experts and undertake poverty reduction and poverty alleviation projects.

Jiang said it would require more coordinated efforts from different nations, businesses and international organizations to help Africa attain food security in the future. "It would require a step-by-step process, and the sharing of experience and technological expertise and training of talent is a key procedure," he said.

He added the project will continue to offer more scholarships to African students to serve as an "innovation hub" for solutions to food security in the continent.

Solomon Yokamo said the experience in China has inspired him to launch a similar STB project in his home country of Ethiopia to serve as the bridge between scientists and smallholder farmers to increase agricultural yield.

"Knowledge is power, but without action, it is meaningless," Solomon said, adding he is determined to share the knowledge and skills he acquired from the project with the farm and science community in his homeland.