A Social-Ecological System Approach towards a Sustainable Intensification of Agricultural Production in Sub-Saharan Africa

Project consortium and fund

Christine Fürst (E-mail:

Martin-Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Department of Sustainable Landscape Development


Cédric Gaucherel (E-mail:

French National Institute for Agricultural Research

Unité AMAP


Benjamin K. Nyarko (E-mail:

Cape Coast University

Department of Geography and Regional Planning


Mahamadou Belem (E-mail:

University Nazi Boni

École superieure d´Informatique

Burkina Faso

Thematic and geographic area of the project:    

  • Sustainable water management
  • Sustainable food security

The project aims at developing a “System of Systems” concept to assess land-use and land-management change scenarios to strengthen sustainable water management and food security for the Sudanian-Savannah region (Ghana and Burkina Faso). This will be achieved by analyzing social-ecological system interactions including local stakeholder knowledge, human management impacts and nature responses at nested scales. The scenario-simulation will deliver bundles of management strategies to improve food and water securities.

Project’s summary/abstract:                    

SESASA aims at developing a “system of systems (SoS)” for assessing agricultural land-use-and-management-change scenarios and provide adaptive feed-back. SESASA will connect farmer responses to social, economic and climate changes at local scale with planning and policy instruments at national scale. SESASA will explore spatio-temporal opportunities to harmonize conflicts between arable farming, grazing and pastoralism. Our theoretical framework builds on social-ecological systems and considers systemic properties such as emergence effects that arise from a non-predictable amplification of management impacts on the availability of natural resources.

Research/ innovation questions the project intends to address:

1. How can social-ecological-systems be operationalized in terms of smart modelling approaches and architectures to enable a highly flexible and low-data demanding assessment of the performance of agro-ecological systems?

2. Which adaptation opportunities for arable farming, grazing and pastoralism – using scenarios – are most recommendable in different agro-ecological zones to minder food and water insecurity?

3. How can we transfer such an approach into decision making and consulting?

Accounting local land-management practices in large scale simulations is indispensable for understanding complex social-ecological interactions and requires a highly integrative knowledge processing approach based, for instance, on graph-node theories to reflect the complexity of drivers, agents and nature-human interactions of agro-ecosystems. We suggest implementing a multi-disciplinary SoS including the models ECOSERV (France), GISCAME (Germany) and MOWASIA (Burkina Faso) + research on planning and management practices (Burkina Faso, Ghana), environmental assessment (Ghana, Germany) and perceptions of local experts and actors (Burkina Faso, Ghana). This ensemble will be implemented to explore multiple trajectories of agro-ecosystems at nested scales.

Project’s main objective(s):                             

1. Bottom-up building of the “System of Systems”: The “System of Systems” approach forms the basis for integrating qualitative and quantitative knowledge. Different modelling concepts will be used to simulate social-ecological processes and interactions at different scales and regions.

2. Developing and assessing land-use and management change scenarios: Based on existing agricultural practices and pastoralism, scenarios will be developed. These scenarios include results from previous projects (WASCAL or BiomassWeb) and observed drivers (cultural norms, trends of land-use and management practices or local side conditions) at different scales.

3. Develop and implement recommendations: Scenario-simulations will deliver bundles of strategies with the potential to improve food and water security incorporating trade-offs in resource access for socially-relevant ecosystem services. The modelling process will result in agricultural policy guidelines and field-scale handbooks for agricultural consultations.

4. Learning approach for assessing and consulting agricultural strategies in West Africa: The model ensemble approach will be used to incorporate a variety of different knowledge sources for an exemplary transfer to other agro-ecological zones, relying on literature data and expert input. The “System of System” approach will be transformed into a generalized guideline how-to manage the process of building systematic architectures.

Theory of Change and Impact Pathway

Summary ToC with assumptions                         

Theory of change: a participatory approach connects actors at multiple scales through the “System of Systems” concept to support, in short-and intermediate-term, the building of capacities for improved land-use and land-management. By partnering micro-ateliers for local participation with expert-ateliers, we involve experiences, knowledge and value systems relevant for decisions in a moderated feed-back process.

Impact pathway: recommendations how policy interventions and governance approaches trigger land-use and land management changes and what kind of impacts arise for food and water securities form the basis for revising agricultural policies at national scale and provide an approach to test the coherence with other policy sectors (environment, economy / trade, education). Improved combinations of policy and governance instruments will give better support to local actors and communities in co-adapting their land-management practices. The software ensemble and the description of its development process and how this can be implemented in training and education will increase the analytical power and science-service provisioning capacities for all partners.

Expected outcomes and impact:                          

1. SESASA will contribute to conceptual and instrumental changes how policies and governance processes (awareness-raising, information, capacity-building, financial improvements, community-based actions) can be tailored for supporting land-use/management adaptation more efficiently.

2. The “System of Systems” approach will be used to train local stakeholders, researchers and students as well as to communicate potential management instruments such as policy guidelines or field handbooks.

3. The project will provide information on land management opportunities and how the developed scenarios can be used to address stakeholder preferences and fears towards future land practice adaptions.