Hunger will continue to plague Africa until we get serious on soils

by Dmitry Konyaev | International Fertilizer Association (IFA)
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 08:19 GMT

In this 2015 file photo, a labourer shows his hand after preparing soil to make bricks at a traditional brick factory in Arab Mesad district of Helwan, northeast of Cairo. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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We need to get serious on saving Africa’s soils, so food security and prosperity on the continent prevail

Severe hunger in Africa could become a thing of the past even in arid regions. Long-term strategies to build resilience to the harsh climates that decimate crops and cattle do exist and need implementing with urgency. In Africa, these strategies, that can lead to major productivity gains in the face of climate change, start with soil.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization released a statement recently declaring that soil management could make or break climate change efforts. This is because our soils hold the most potential for capturing and storing the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that exacerbate global warming.  In its fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that 90 percent of agriculture’s climate change mitigation potential lies in soil carbon sequestration.

But degraded soils are less able to capture and store carbon than healthy, fertile soils. And in nowhere in the world are soils as degraded as they are in Africa. It is estimated that around 65 percent of Africa’s soils are degraded, and despite being home to 10 percent of the world’s population, Africa accounts for just 3 percent of global fertiliser use. Without a good balance of organic and mineral fertilisers, soils are unable to nourish healthy food crops. When soils starve, so do people.

A concerted effort is needed to get fertiliser into the hands of Africa’s millions of smallholder farmers, and provide them with information on their proper use. A new handbook, compiled by the World Farmers' Organisation, the International Fertilizer Association and the Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture, outlines how to help farmers to implement fertiliser best management practices and adapt to a changing climate. It aims to equip farmers and extension agents with the knowledge on how to best manage nutrients, both mineral and organic, to achieve the triple win of productivity, resilience and sustainability.

One of the major challenges in Africa is access to fertiliser, even naturally occurring organic matter. There are not enough animals per hectare in Africa to produce enough manure for the job and manure is also used for other purposes like energy and building materials. But applying mineral fertiliser will help farmers increase their yields, while simultaneously increasing the nutrient-rich above and below ground biomass and residues that these crops leave behind which can be reapplied to nourish the soil.

The efficient use of mineral fertilisers ensures that they are more affordable to African farmers, but also as environmentally safe as possible. This means making sure farmers are using the right type of fertiliser for their soil, climate and cropping system, in the right quantity, applying it at the right time and in the right place. This is known as the 4Rs of nutrient stewardship, and is explained at length in the new manual.

For example, work carried out by the International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) to educate soybean farmers in Kenya on the 4Rs, resulted in yields substantially increasing, from approximately 1 to 2.4 tonnes per hectare by application of N, P, K, and micronutrients, and even up to 3 tonnes per hectare when manure and lime were also applied using best fertiliser management practices.

Applying nutrients to crops have the added benefit of enhancing water productivity, because nutrient deficiencies in a plant reduce root development and therefore the ability of crops to take in water and use it efficiently. The same is true of water stress – if not enough water is available to a plant, its ability to take in nutrients is hindered. Addressing water and nutrient availability in an integrated way has been shown to have the biggest impact on yields – and will be critical for conserving water supplies on the continent.

Fertigation is an innovative fertiliser application method that entails applying fertilisers to crops through irrigation water. It makes it possible to synchronise the crops' nutrient demand with fertiliser supply throughout their growth, while preventing water from being wasted.

Reducing tillage could also make a big difference. Detailed analysis of soil interventions in Kenya and Ethiopia have shown reducing soil disturbance to maintain carbon levels in the soil is an important step for making Africa’s soils climate-smart.

As the foundation for agriculture, soils are the foundation for economic growth: more productive farms are more profitable farms. Given that many conflicts are rooted in natural resource scarcity and social injustice, helping farmers to use natural resources wisely and generate more income will help pave a path towards peaceful and sustainable development in the region.

Gordon Conway, former chair of the Montpellier Panel on African agriculture once wrote: “Africa cannot build its future on exhausted soils”. To avoid a future that retells tales of poverty and hunger, we need to get serious on saving Africa’s soils. Only then can food security and prosperity on the continent prevail.

Dmitry Konyaev, CEO of Uralchem, is chairman of the International Fertilizer Association’s Communications & Public Affairs Committee