Social and environmental trade-offs in African agriculture

In sub-Saharan Africa, achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of 'zero hunger' (SDG2), while reducing inequalities (SDG10) and conserving ecosystems (SDG15), is a big challenge. A new IIED-led research project aims to develop knowledge, relationships and research capacities to address this task.

October 2017 - December 2021
Phil Franks

Principal researcher (biodiversity), Natural Resources

Resilience and diversity in food systems
A programme of work on how IIED is building greater local control, resilience and diversity into agricultural and food systems
A conservation agriculture demonstration at the Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust, Zambia. Conservation agriculture can increase productivity and improve soil structure (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

A conservation agriculture demonstration at the Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust, Zambia. Conservation agriculture can increase productivity and improve soil structure (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

Increasing agricultural production to meet rapidly growing demands for food (a 150% increase by 2050), while safeguarding vital ecosystem services and promoting social equality, lies at the heart of sustainable development. 

IIED's research in sub-Saharan Africa has shown that conflicts between goals on food security, ecosystem conservation and inequality are intensifying in the region because of a number of factors, including rapid progress in economic development and population growth. However, decision makers in government and the private sector continue to act on an insufficient understanding of the socio-economic and environmental impacts of different agricultural development pathways.

As a result, current agricultural development strategies are poorly informed – particularly considering projected regional changes in climate – and, in some areas, are on a collision course with forest conservation and restoration policies. This is contributing to increasing inequalities and has the potential to further marginalise those who depend on agriculture for a living.


The SENTINEL (Social and Environmental Trade-offs in African Agriculture) project is a research initiative led by IIED, supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund of the UK Research Councils.

This partnership between UK and African research organisations will enhance their capacity to investigate these challenges through a participatory process that combines state-of-the-art research with effective engagement with research users.

Its vision is for decision makers in the public and private sectors to take more account of the consequences (for society and the environment) of different agricultural development pathways, and for civil society organisations to have a greater role in shaping the national discourse on the best routes to food security.

The project will focus on Zambia, Ghana and Ethiopia, while working with a wider group of universities in Africa to share lessons and build capacity.

What is IIED doing?

The research process will involve an initial stock-taking of the challenges in each country, followed by innovative interdisciplinary approaches to determine: 

  1. Drivers of current agricultural landscapes
  2. Impacts of different agricultural development pathways on socio-economic factors, biodiversity and the capacity of ecosystems to provide services to people over the long term
  3. The role of institutions and policies in shaping agricultural systems, and 
  4. The political and economic barriers to more joined-up policy and planning.  

From this basis, the project will then engage key stakeholders in participatory scenario building exercises. Scenario building allows stakeholders to simulate the complex factors (e.g. climate change, population growth and urbanisation) that affect agriculture and land use change. It also helps stakeholders to better understand the impacts, risks and trade-offs of different agricultural developmental pathways.

The project will support stakeholders in interpreting and refining scenarios to inform policies, investments and advocacy at sub-national and national level. It will build on the work of the IIED-led International Working Group on Food and Forests in Africa, and complement SITAM (Supporting smallholder farmers' decision making: managing trade-offs and synergies for sustainable intensification), an IIED-led project on trade-offs and synergies in agriculture, which focuses on farm and household level decision making.

Our interdisciplinary research process will be accompanied by activities to assess and develop both the technical and the 'process-oriented' capacities of participating researchers and stakeholders, including policymakers, private sector and civil society actors.

Our aim is to strengthen their ability to co-develop relevant research and to assess and use the outcomes for decision making and advocacy. New partnerships will be developed between researchers in Africa and the UK, between different disciplines, and between different stakeholder groups in the three countries via National Learning Alliances.


The ultimate beneficiaries of this process will be poor rural and urban households that would benefit from more coherent policies supporting the long-term sustainability and resilience of farming systems and key ecosystem services.

These make up a large proportion of the human population in sub-Saharan Africa and include (a) the poor in rural areas whose food security is based on subsistence agriculture and using income from agricultural labour and cash crops to purchase food to cover gaps, and (b) poor rural and urban populations who produce little or no food themselves, but who are highly dependent on purchased food and thus exposed to food price risk resulting from the failure to balance food supply and demand.

Additional resources

SENTINEL project website

Analytic hierarchy process (AHP), Nadja Kaspercyk, Karlheinz Knickel (2022), Project material

Template to organise analysis and seek feedback, Alan Renwick (2022), Project material

Blog: Shaping the future of forest and farm landscapes in Africa, by Xiaoting Hou Jones and Phil Franks (August 2017)


University of Ghana, Department of Soil Science 

Copperbelt University, School of Natural Resources

Ethiopian Development Research Institute, Environment and Climate Research Center

Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM)

University of Oxford, Environmental Change Institute and Department of Zoology

University College London, Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment and Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research

University of Reading, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development

Imperial College London, Faculty of Natural Sciences, Department of Life Sciences

University of Greenwich, Natural Resources Institute