For a greener Green Revolution, restore soil health in Africa

by Esther Ngumbi
Tuesday, 14 June 2016 06:55 GMT

A farmer tends to his field on the Kenyan coast. PHOTO/Esther Ngumbi

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Nigeria is launching a "Soil Doctor" programme after decades of declining soil health and mounting malnutrition

Africa’s most populous country is launching a long-overdue national program for its millions of small-scale family farmers: a soil test kit linked to the digital cloud. The program by the government of Nigeria follows decades of declining soil health and mounting malnutrition.

Known as “Soil Doctor”, the test will enable farmers to quickly analyze the nutrient content of their soil. This information, in turn, will allow them to determine which fertilizers to use and in what amounts. The goal: to improve food production by getting the most out of the soil.

The program is meant to address a problem that is widespread not only in Nigeria but also across sub-Saharan Africa: some 65 percent of the region’s soils are degraded. Extensive land degradation is now a major driver of hunger and food insecurity, for depleted soils can neither support high yields nor grow nutrient-rich crops.

In Nigeria, half the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, predisposing them to chronic hunger. And hunger is most acute in rural areas, where about 90 percent of the population relies on farming for their livelihoods.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of healthy soils. Unseen to the naked eye, healthy soils improve the activity of soil microbes, which in turn help plants utilize nutrients; cope with water stress; and combat crop diseases and pests. For Africa to sustainably feed its growing population, many governments must emulate Nigeria’s example and take action to restore soil health.

It is often a matter of reversing the damage done by “soil mining.” In many parts of Africa, poor soils are the result of repeated farming of the same land without replenishing the soil’s nutrients. Crops consume upwards of 45 kilograms of nutrients and minerals from each hectare of land every season.

When farmers cannot afford to replace the soil nutrients taken up by their crops, the soil is literally mined of life. In addition, factors such as deforestation, irrigation and soil salinization, excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, and overgrazing contribute to soil degradation.

PRODUCE MORE WITH LESS

Smart investments in soil and land management must be based on a scientific assessment of the state of the soil, making testing initiatives a good place to start.

Knowing just what the soil needs allows farmers to replace the common “one-size-fits-all” approach to fertilizer use with a precise targeted use of fertilizers to revitalize their fields. It is more effective and more affordable. Fertilizer is one of the costliest inputs in agriculture, and the use of right amount of fertilizer is fundamental for farm profitability and environmental protection.

Improving the health of Africa’s soil in this way will help farmers to produce more with less; minimize nutrient deficiencies, and limit environmental damage that can result when fertilizers are misused.

Such programs are just beginning to take root in Africa. In Kenna, the “soil doctor” brings soil testing services to smallholder farmers, and uses mobile phone technology to communicate the results and soil health recommendations. By implementing these recommendations, farmers have doubled their crop production. In Uganda, a mobile soil lab - a truck with an advanced soil testing laboratory - is likewise helping farmers diagnose the health of their soils and treat them accordingly.

A coalition of more than a dozen African countries are members of the African Restoration Initiative whose goal is to restore 100 million hectares of degraded land in Africa by 2030. There work is aided by soil quality data maps created by the World Agroforestry Center and the new African soil diversity map. These tools will help identify the changing nature of soils across the continent, enabling farmers to monitor and deal with changes in soil quality.

Of course, for smallholder farmers to reach their full potential as food producers, improving soil health must be accompanied by use of improved crop varieties, mechanization, pest and disease control, and irrigation. But only with healthy soil as a base will such measures fully deliver on their promise.

We must invest in building the foundation to a food secure world-and that begins with smart investments in soil and land management. Comprehensive knowledge of Africa’s soils health must be developed. It is time Africa realizes that healthy soils are key.

There is the need for more African countries to follow Nigeria’s path. Healthy soils that result from the targeted use of fertilizers and other required inputs will enable smallholder farmers to better feed themselves and the growing population. Good soil and land management are needed to finally achieve an environmentally sustainable green revolution in Africa.

Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral research fellow at Auburn University in Alabama, and a 2015 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow.