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Network analysis of N flows and food self-sufficiency-a comparative study of crop-livestock systems of the highlands of East and southern Africa

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  • M. C. Rufino
  • P. Tittonell
  • P. Reidsma
  • S. López-Ridaura
  • H. Hengsdijk
  • K. E. Giller
  • A. Verhagen
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>10/2009
<mark>Journal</mark>Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems
Issue number2
Number of pages18
Pages (from-to)169-186
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date13/02/09
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Smallholder farming systems in sub-Saharan Africa are often nutrient-limited, and therefore imports must be increased to compensate exports and losses. To explore whether the properties of nutrient cycling networks relate to the systems' capability to sustain rural families, we investigated N flows within contrasting crop-livestock systems in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zimbabwe applying concepts from ecological network analysis. Farm households were conceptualised as networks, the compartments were the household and their farming activities which were connected by the N flows. Indicators assessing network size, activity and cycling, and the organisation and diversity of the N flows were compared with system productivity and food self-sufficiency. Results showed that organisation and diversity of N flows to, from and within the farm households differed more between farms of different resource endowments than across sites. The amount of N cycled per household was small and comparable across sites: less than 25 kg N year-1, and for the poor households less than 5 kg N year-1. Poor households with soil N stocks that were 50-60% smaller than wealthier households depended more on external inputs (e.g. a dependence of 65% vs. 45% in Zimbabwe). Productivity was positively related to network size, its organisation and N cycling, but utilisation efficiencies were different across sites in relation to soil N stock and the importance of livestock for N flows. Greater size of the N flow network and its organisation led to increased productivity and food self-sufficiency, reducing dependence, which may increase the adaptability and reliability of smallholder crop-livestock systems.