Sub-Saharan African countries, including Ethiopia and Rwanda, have embarked on an ambitious path to reclaim and sustainably manage 100 million hectares of land by 2030. This journey is timely considering 65 percent of Africa’s soils are sick and degraded. Ailing African soils result in low crop yields and low household capital, pushing millions of smallholder farmers into hunger and the poverty trap, further thwarting Africa’s hope for a food-secure future.
There are plenty of factors that have contributed to the widespread degradation of soils, including unsustainable practices such as not rotating crops, not applying the right kind of fertilizers, failing to ensure the presence of appropriate soil microbes (including beneficial microbes to break down organic matter), continuous tilling of the land, and leaving the land bare after crop harvests. As soil is degraded, important ecosystem processes such as the formation of new soils and nutrient and water cycling are impacted, which further undermines agricultural production.
To help rectify the problem, African farmers need to adopt soil conservation practices. Such techniques include cover cropping, reduced tillage, crop rotation, mulching, and integrated soil fertility management.
Indeed, productivity of degraded soils can be restored and crop yields boosted when sustainable practices are implemented. In West Africa, for example, adoption of integrated soil fertility management practices coordinated by the International Fertilizer Development Center resulted in healthy soils, yield increases of 33 to 58 percent over a four-year period, and income increases of 176 percent from maize and 50 percent from cowpeas and cassava. As another example, in Ethiopia, the regional government of Tigray in partnership with donor agencies including USAID, the World Bank, the World Food Program and the German Development Cooperation successfully restored vast areas of degraded land.
What’s more, certain soil conservation practices reduce carbon emission through greater carbon sequestration by soil. According to scientists, increasing carbon in the soil can also increase grain production by 32 million tons per year.
As seen in the examples from West Africa and Ethiopia, it is possible to restore Africa’s degraded land and soils when farmers adopt the appropriate conservation practices. The underlying question then becomes: How can Africa scale up the these practices?
First and foremost, there is a need to increase communication across the continent about the success that can come when farmers prioritize conservation. This step has already begun. Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization that led a comprehensive program to help restore the health of African soils, has showcased many of the success stories arising from its soil health program. Adoption of soil conservation practices—including integrated soil fertility management—resulted in the rejuvenation of more than 1.6 million hectares of degraded lands, with farmers tripling yields of maize, pigeon peas, and soybeans. CGIAR, based in France but with several research centers located in the global south, has also been on the front lines and has success stories to share. For example, the organization reported how terracing, a commonly used soil and water conservation practice in Kenya and across East Africa, has resulted in increased agricultural yields of at least 25 percent.
Second, advocates need to amplify the voices of champions—the farmers engaged in these practices. There are many NGOs working on the ground that can be used to broadcast such voices. Organizations like AGRA and CGIAR should not only showcase the success of a whole program but also put a spotlight on individual farmers who are leading the way in adopting these practices and seeing increased productivity as a result.
Finally, there must be more coordination on all programs that are working on restoring Africa’s soils. Fortunately, the continent is already moving in the right direction. In November, stakeholders in African soil and land management convened the first seminar to consider improved coordination, exchange, and learning between African and international initiatives. This seminar, held in Kenya, brought together over 200 participants. At the end of the seminar, representatives presented a joint statement announcing their commitment to promoting soil and land restoration efforts in their countries and the African region at large. Additionally, as mentioned above, African countries have come together with the bold goal of reclaiming and sustainably managing 100 million hectares of degraded land by 2030.
Making Africa’s sick soils healthy again is important to enhancing food security and reducing poverty. To ensure an access to food, Africa must stay on track to reach the 100 million-hectare goal. At the same time, meeting this target will require continuously scaling up the practices that work and sharing the success stories that arise from these initiatives. Healthy soils remain a key foundation to a sustainable and food-secure Africa.
Esther Ngumbi is a post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Auburn University in Alabama. She serves as a 2017 Clinton Global University (CGI U) Mentor for Agriculture and is a 2015 Food Security New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.