Might the future of local organic farming in Africa lie in participatory certification?

Science at work 16 May 2023
In view of the lack if not total absence of frameworks for organic farming in Africa, participatory guarantee systems are leading the way in terms of setting ambitious agroecological standards. CIRAD is supporting such systems by facilitating meetings, training, and co-construction of methodological tools. We look at this fast-growing organizational innovation.
© R. Belmin, CIRAD
© R. Belmin, CIRAD

© R. Belmin, CIRAD

Participatory guarantee systems (PGSs) are an alternative to third-party certification, and are the only way in Africa of labelling sustainable farming for local and regional target markets. One reason is that the prohibitive cost of the documentation required to obtain EU organic-type labels automatically rules out most of the continent's producers. After the creation of the first PGS in South Africa in 2005, the 2010s saw an acceleration of the dynamic, to the extent that 50 are now up and running or about to be, involving almost 10 000 farmers on 34 000 hectares of land.

Growing demand for organic products

This basic shift has been fuelled by growing demand for healthy products despite the lack of a legal framework for organic farming. "Thanks to direct selling initiatives such as community-supported agriculture (CSA) or farmers markets, we are now seeing, particularly in towns, that consumers want to buy sustainable products", says CIRAD economist Sylvaine Lemeilleur. "However, there is no legal framework around certification. It is PGSs, through their associative activities, that are primarily responsible for the growth in organic farming".

There was already an informal network, using instant messaging to link members of African PGSs, but for want of funding, its members had never been able to meet face to face. They have now: the first regional meeting of PGSs in West and central Africa was held in February. It was organized in Ivory Coast by CIRAD, with support from the Nitidae NGO, the PRETAG and MARIGO projects and hosted by the agricultural college INPHB.

Really committed producers

"Over the three days of discussions, which were eagerly awaited, the participants worked non-stop", the researcher says. She facilitated the workshops, using the participatory methods developed by CIRAD. Her enthusiasm was shared by the representatives of 13 PGSs (already up and running or about to be), "agroecological militants and leaders in their respective countries". A joint declaration was issued following the meeting, which will hopefully be held every two years.

La première rencontre des SPG d’Afrique de l’Ouest et centrale (CC BY-NC-SA)

La première rencontre des SPG d’Afrique de l’Ouest et centrale (CC BY-NC-SA)

The main observation that emerged from the talks was that PGSs are still finding it difficult to organize themselves horizontally and encourage all their peers to participate, despite the fact that this is central to their raison d’être. CIRAD has conducted several initiatives to support PGSs since 2019.

Supporting the development of participatory certification

As part of the IIABA project, it helped the agroecological initiatives network in Morocco to launch a PGS and contributed to the development of an app to optimize organization of certification visits (see box).

The MARIGO project, coordinated by CIRAD in partnership with Nitidae, saw the building of a charter and a set of specifications for the first Ivorian PGS. Similarly, in Congo, it is involved in a project to support the relaunch of the agricultural sector (PARSA).

The Territoires durables and Compairs projects have enabled the drafting of several methodological guides. Furthermore, training courses combining theory and field visits are organized regularly, including a study trip to Cameroon, which should bring African PGS members together again, by the end of the year. "These PGSs have relatively unprofitable local markets and are highly dependent on funding from international NGOs", Sylvaine Lemeilleur says. "But for the first time, during their meeting, they looked into a strategy that would enable them to become independent within five years."
Sharing of good practice and mutual recognition of PGSs between countries in a given region are good reasons to be optimistic for the future of these participatory certification initiatives on the continent.

DICOOP, an app to help participatory certification

Availability and skills expected of assessors, acceptable distance to travel, non-reciprocity of assessments, rotations to optimize knowledge exchanges and reduce the risks of tacit understandings, and so on. Setting rules for organizing certification visits is often a headache for PGSs. At the request of the agroecological initiatives network in Morocco (RIAM), a growing PGS faced with this complex issue, the DICOOP app (DIstribuer les évaluateurs dans une CertificatiOn Organisée par les Pairs) was developed. It was designed by a group of researchers - including CIRAD's Sylvaine Lemeilleur and Nicolas Paget - and offers PGS members a rapid, effective solution for optimizing logistics and learning during visits. In addition to that practical use, it is a tool to fuel debate within PGSs. Should assessors work in the same field as the people they are assessing? How can we prevent burnout among volunteers or limit the stowaway phenomenon?  If the interest shown by several African PGSs, use of the app, which is currently primarily used by RIAM and two French PGSs (Nature & Progrès and Flor de Pèira) could well spread.