Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa

Snapp, S. S., M.J. Blackie, R.A. Gilbert, R. Bezner Kerr, G.Y. Kanyama-Phiri. Biodiversity can support a greener revolution in Africa’ 2010. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107(48):20840-20845 doi:10.1073/pnas.1007199107


The Asian green revolution trebled grain yields through agrochemical intensification of monocultures. Associated environmental costs have subsequently emerged. A rapidly changing world necessitates sustainability principles be developed to reinvent these technologies and test them at scale. The need is particularly urgent in Africa, where ecosystems are degrading and crop yields have stagnated. An unprecedented opportunity to reverse this trend is unfolding in Malawi, where a 90% subsidy has ensured access to fertilization and improved maize seed, with substantive gains in productivity for millions of farmers. To test if economic and ecological sustainability could be improved, we preformed manipulative experimentation with crop diversity in a countrywide trial (n = 991) and at adaptive, local scales through a decade of participatory research (n = 146). Spatial and temporal treatments compared monoculture maize with legume-diversified maize that included annual and semiperennial (SP) growth habits in temporal and spatial combinations, including rotation, SP rotation, intercrop, and SP intercrop systems. Modest fertilizer intensification doubled grain yield compared with monoculture maize. Biodiversity improved ecosystem function further: SP rotation systems at half-fertilizer rates produced equivalent quantities of grain, on a more stable basis (yield variability reduced from 22% to 13%) compared with monoculture. Across sites, profitability and farmer preference matched: SP rotations provided twofold superior returns, whereas diversification of maize with annual legumes provided more modest returns. In this study, we provide evidence that in Africa, crop diversification can be effective at a countrywide scale, and that shrubby, grain legumes can enhance environmental and food security.

For more information, contact our research coordinator, Rachel Bezner Kerr at

Participatory Research on Legume Diversification with Malawian Smallholder Farmers for Improved Human Nutrition and Soil Fertility.

Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Chirwa, M., Shumba, L., & Msachi, R. (2007). Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental Agriculture, 43(4), 1-17.


Legume species are uniquely suited to enhance soil productivity and provide nutrient-enriched grains and vegetables for limited-resource farmers. Yet substantial barriers to diversification with legumes exist, such as moderate yield potential and establishment costs, indicating the need for long-term engagement and farmer-centered research and extension. Farmer experimentation and adoption of legumes can be fostered among even the most resource-poor smallholders. Multi-educational activities and participatory research involving farmer research teams was carried out with 80 communities. Over five years more than 3000 farmers tested legumes and gained knowledge of legume contributions to child nutrition and soil productivity. The average area of expansion of legume systems was 862m2 in 2005; 772m2 for women and 956m2 for men indicating a gender dimension to legume adoption. Farmers chose edible legume intercrops such as pigeonpea and groundnut over the mucuna green manure system, particularly women farmers. Interestingly, expansion in area of doubled-up edible legumes (854m2 in 2005) was practiced by more farmers, but was a smaller area than that of mucuna green manure system (1429m2). An information gap was discovered around the biological consequences of legume residue management. Education on the soil benefits of improved residue management and participatory methods of knowledge sharing were associated with enhanced labour investment; 72% of farmers reported burying legume residues in 2005 compared to 15% in 2000. Households reported feeding significantly more edible legumes to their children compared with control households. Participatory research that incorporated nutritional education fostered discussions within households and communities, the foundation for sustained adoption of legume-diversified systems.

Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility (PDF)

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