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Degraded soils have historically inhibited successful food production - better fertilisers can help change that
Ethiopia has continually attempted to shake its association with widespread hunger and poverty. In 2003, 15 million people in the country were estimated to be food insecure. This year, once again, widespread drought induced by the strongest El Niño on record has forced 10.2 million people to rely on food aid.
But a quiet transformation has been taking place in recent years that has allowed Ethiopia to contain the effects of this drought to a greater extent than before. Despite the harsh setbacks of recent months, Ethiopia is still on track to become a middle-income country in the next ten years.
This transformation is rooted in agriculture. Ethiopia has been working on a series of revolutionary measures to boost agricultural production, thus improving the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers. From an effective social safety net scheme to extensive land restoration projects, efforts to improve agricultural practices have had a domino effect on both food security and economic growth.
One of the biggest and most ambitious land-related projects to date has focused on the degraded soils that have historically inhibited successful food production.
For crops to grow, they need access to 14 specific nutrients from the soil; yet in Sub-Saharan Africa, 65 percent of soils are considered to be degraded and lacking in these vital nutrients.
Ethiopia spans 1.1 million square kilometres, covered with widely different agro-ecologies. This means we have a broad variety of soil types, which have their own nutrient compositions and management needs.
In the same way that all illnesses cannot be treated with the same medicine, Ethiopia’s diverse soils need unique combinations of nutrients to keep them healthy and productive.
That is why in 2012, the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) and related stakeholders began the Ethiopian Soil Information System (EthioSIS) project. A first-of-its-kind initiative in Africa, EthioSIS uses remote sensing satellite technology and extensive soil sampling to provide high-resolution soil fertility mapping.
NEW FERTILISER BLENDS
Grid-based soil sampling and data collection was done across the country, followed by intensive soil sampling from all arable land, to discover which soil fertility and health conditions were limiting crop productivity.
We discovered that, in addition to the most widely deficient major nutrients - nitrogen and phosphorus - many areas were also deficient in potassium and sulphur as well as zinc, boron or copper. The enormous soil analysis data generated, together with satellite imagery, are now being used to create the first country-specific digital soil fertility atlas in Africa.
Based on this, experts can identify the types of fertilisers to recommend to farmers. Unlike in the past, when two fertiliser types - diammonium phosphate (DAP) and urea - were distributed uniformly, soil fertility experts and agronomists are now able to make specific and localized fertiliser recommendations by districts and sub-districts.
With the diagnostic work near completion, we also needed to ensure the cure was available to farmers.
Under the ATA, the EthioSIS project is working to produce new blends of fertilisers, custom-made to suit the nutrient requirements of agricultural soils across the country. To date, five local blended fertiliser production plants have been set up in Ethiopia’s four major regions.
Much still needs to be done to educate Ethiopia’s 13 million smallholders on how to use the right fertiliser and complimentary crop and soil specific technologies. Tens of thousands of new fertiliser demonstrations have been conducted by engaging model farmers and at farmer training centres and field days.
Radio communications, leaflets and extension guidelines in local languages are also being disseminated. These have helped to get farmers' buy-in of the new fertilisers, the benefits of which (as compared to previous types) have been quickly evident to users.
Early results have shown that these new blends, or other imported compound fertilisers, improve crop yields by up to 65 percent when used in tandem with recommended improved crop and soil management practices.
The new fertilisers cannot, of course, be considered a one-stop solution – farmers must continue to use improved crop varieties, remove weeds, and employ complementary soil management techniques, such as applying lime to acid soils and using compost to enrich the soil organic pool.
Ethiopia’s extensive study of soil fertility and the resulting fertiliser recommendations can serve as an example to other African nations.
About 80 percent of the continent’s population is engaged in agriculture, and 60 percent of exports also come from the sector. At the same time, Ethiopia’s plan is to accelerate agricultural growth so that it can feed the industry.
Our experience justifies that improving Africa’s soils would have the domino effect of not only boosting farmer incomes and economic growth, but also ensuring better food security in the region.
But more needs to be done before Africa, specifically sub-Saharan Africa, launches strong soil health and fertility replenishment programmes in its countries. We hope the EthioSIS soil fertility mapping project can be used as a model for other African nations.
Professor Tekalign Mamo is a former State Minister for Agriculture in Ethiopia. He currently leads programmes at the Agricultural Transformation Agency. This month he received the IFA Norman Borlaug Award for his outstanding commitment to rehabilitating soil health on the African continent.