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Maheder Haileselassie/IWMI

Embracing natural cycles for a sustainable food system

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

All farmers, whether they live in the chilly Ethiopian highlands or in the sun-baked plains of northern India, whether they grow tomatoes or rear cattle, want to get their product to market in the best condition possible. Only then can they secure the price they deserve for the hard work they have put in. For this to happen, everything in the farming cycle has to fall into place – with pre-production, production, supply and consumption demand. Unfortunately, many things can, and do, go wrong.

Farmers may be limited by the availability of good soil, a regular supply of water to irrigate crops, or accessible grazing. At first glance, it may seem that these are natural constraints. Farmers have often been able to work around the limited resources available to them, for instance by using fossil fuels to manufacture chemical fertilizers or to power irrigation pumps. But externalizing environmental costs in this way usually leads to other problems. 

The solution may lie in working with what we already have. In India, Ghana, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia, farmers have been buoyed by CGIAR-supported innovations that tap into natural cycles to achieve a more robust, sustainable cycle of production and supply that could be a model for food systems across the world.

Making rain while the sun shines 

Using the power of the sun to draw water from the earth so Indian farmers could irrigate their crops was a great idea: it allowed them to produce more food for the market and for their families, and use free solar power instead of polluting, expensive diesel for their pumps. But resolving the issue of over-pumping and groundwater depletion by enabling ‘solar farmers’ to band together in cooperatives to sell excess power to the grid was a stroke of genius. In Gujarat state, farmers doubled their income while pumping only the water they needed. The Solar Power as Remunerative Crop (SpaRC) model is now the basis for a US$ 16.4 billion, 10-year government scheme that will convert 7.5 million subsidized electric irrigation pumps to solar.

Solar irrigation has huge potential for farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, where just 1% (2 million hectares) of cultivated land uses groundwater. It is estimated that this could be increased to 40 million hectares. A key step towards food security would be to determine which regions are best suited for investment or scaling up of solar irrigation. To this end, ‘suitability maps’ have been developed for Mali and Ethiopia, and for the latter a business model lays out the financial and institutional mechanisms that need to be in place so smallholder farmers can make use of this innovation.

Solar water pumps and selling excess for electricity in Gujarat.
Prashanth Vishwanathan/IWMI

Yewol for all of us

Where groundwater is less accessible and livestock grazing is a key livelihood, as in the highlands of northern Ethiopia, communities have been supported to knit together a set of innovations allowing natural cycles to replenish their water and soil. In the Yewol mountains, a combination of rainwater erosion and free grazing was steadily diminishing the productivity of both crops and livestock, causing food insecurity. Research helped to bring in a holistic, three-tiered approach to the challenges faced by the watershed. This considered the different but interlinked issues for communities living on the cool, exposed and overgrazed mountaintops, those living along the eroded, irregularly watered middle belt of the mountains, and those farming the flood-prone lowlands. Innovations such as stone terracing and contour ditching – achieved with labor donated by the communities themselves – not only prevented soil erosion when the rains came, they also trapped water and recharged groundwater reserves. New crops were introduced in step with best agronomic practices, and farmers’ co-ops improved their bargaining power with new markets.

Key to these advances was the introduction of previously non-existent grazing controls, carefully negotiated across the communities. Barring livestock from grazing, while growing fodder to feed the animals, addressed the problem of erosion and built trust based on evidence. Today, the Yewol mountains live up to their name – ‘for all of us’ – and stand proud as an exemplar of revitalizing communities by enhancing natural processes.     

livestock grazing is a key livelihood in the highlands of northern Ethiopia.  
Mulugeta Ayene/WLE

Transforming sludge into soil 

There’s nothing more natural than the process by which every living being on the planet turns food into waste. But the circular economy in which this waste is itself recycled back into nutrition, long a cornerstone of agricultural practice, has diminished in importance. This is particularly the case in urban contexts, where people are cut off from farming systems, as is their waste. In Ghana, however, a public-private partnership set up a plant that co-composted, in just its first few months of operation, 2,300 cubic meters of  human waste and 120 metric tons of food waste into 110 tons of high-quality, safe compost. Fortifer™ is now available for sale to local farmers, and with a second composting plant under construction, the government has added waste compost to the list of fertilizers that it subsidizes.

Meanwhile, recognizing this potential, the Government of Sri Lanka is drafting a sanitation policy that will list septic waste as a nutrient-rich resource. This essential first step will pave the way for entrepreneurs to collect and treat waste from septic tanks. Not only does this innovation contribute to waste management, it also allows the replenishing of soils, a corresponding increase in food production, and new business opportunities.   

Solid green luminous night soil made from fecal sludge (human waste) at Dikowita Bio Gas Unit, Western Province, Sri Lanka.
Hamish John Appleby/IWMI

Working with what we have

The farming cycle has always thrived within the embrace of natural cycles, such as that of water and soil fertility. These stories from sub-Saharan Africa and Asia show us that there is much to be gained by looking to harness or make better use of the resources already within our reach. Innovations such as solar irrigation, co-composting and community-based regeneration of landscapes help farmers reach their potential – and inspire others to adapt their example for the betterment of their own lives.


Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners.

WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDGISFCDOSDC, Sida and others.