Op-Ed: Africa’s Soil Health Crisis Demands Immediate Attention

Dr. Agnes Kalibata AGRA President

Soil serves as the foundation of life on our planet, yet the demands humans place on this vital resource are rapidly approaching critical thresholds.

The cost of land degradation due to poor soil health is estimated to be between USD 850 and 1,400 per year for every individual, with a global cost of USD 6.3 to 10.6 trillion annually.

Soil fertility decline not only reduces crop yield, but also exacerbates the impacts of climate change by reducing the land’s resilience and capacity to adapt. Since the 1960s, land degradation in Africa has led to a significant expansion of agricultural land by about 300%, compared to 25% elsewhere.

This has happened at the expense of forests, wetlands and other fragile systems. This expansion is driven by the need to compensate for the loss of productivity caused by soil fertility decline.  It is imperative to minimize or eradicate significant soil degradation in Africa to preserve the services rendered by all soils, which is significantly more cost-effective than rehabilitating soils post-degradation.

This week, the African Union and Government of Kenya hosted AFSH Summit in Nairobi Kenya to delve into the importance of soil health and fertilizer use in African food systems.

Five pivotal policy imperatives emerged, demanding the attention of African governments:

Firstly, policy incentives and investments must pave the way for a paradigm shift towards sustainable farming practices. Smart subsidies, tailored to usher farmers into this new era, are paramount. Investment in land restoration, concurrently, promises not just enhanced productivity but also beckons the dawn of a greener, more resilient agriculture.

Secondly, the imperative of land tenure policies cannot be overstated. Empowering farmers to safeguard their land will foster a culture of stewardship, vital for the sustainable use of this finite resource. There is a lot of evidence that shows that farmers protect land from erosion and other physical damage when the incentives are right- there is no question that land titling to farmers would be such an incentive and would reduce the high rate of ecosystem degradation and erosion.

Thirdly, a robust investment in fertilizer systems is indispensable. African governments should invest in improving access to both organic and mineral fertilizers to enhance soil health. This includes promoting domestic production, distribution, and intra-regional trade of fertilizers and increasing the production and use of lime for managing soil acidity. Ensuring the affordability and availability of fertilizers is essential for soil nutrient replenishment and maintaining agricultural productivity. Nitrogen inputs should increase at least fourfold.to close the yield gap in Africa. Liming of acid soils increase crop yield by 35 to 50%, and its effect could be pronounced by an additional 20-25% when integrated with sources of carbon including green manuring and composting.

Fourthly, the last mile delivery systems must be fortified. Governments must invest in functional extension systems and create capacity for availing locally relevant soil health and fertilizer management technologies and practices. Providing advisory services to smallholder farmers and establishing regional networks for knowledge exchange will empower farmers to make informed decisions and adopt best practices for soil health and fertilizer use. Empowering farmers through farm level innovation is crucial for promoting soil health and fertilizer use.

AGRA’s and partners have demonstrated that it is possible to reduce the farmer extension ration from 1:3000 to 1:500 and the last mile from over 22 kilometers to less than 8 on average across 11 countries. This strengthens the last mile and allows farmers to have access to both information and technologies. Today, farmers that produce 5 metric tonnes per hectare can be found in each of these countries but it must be scaled and anchored in a sustainable private sector ecosystem.

Lastly, research and innovation must be championed. Governments should support local research capacity and infrastructure, including functional soil labs. They must also enable and leverage private sector organizations, facilitating integration between research institutions, universities, extension services, so that new technologies can be developed/available faster to address the challenges of soil health. An assessment of investments on research in the CGIAR found that over the past 50 years there had been a 10-dollar return on every dollar invested in research and development.

The Abuja Declaration, endorsed by the Heads of State and Governments of the African Union in 2006, highlights the importance of managing soils to address the challenges of soil fertility decline.

African leaders have recognized the multifunctional roles of soils in agriculture and the need to increase fertilizer use and complementary inputs to stimulate sustainable agricultural productivity growth and economic development. It set a target of increasing fertilizer use from 8 kilograms of nutrients per hectare to at least 50 kilograms of nutrients per hectare by 2015. However, uptake remains low at an average of 18kg per hectare and as a result, productivity and income of small holder farmers have marginally improved.

Climate change and externalities such as the Ukraine-Russia war and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the challenges faced by African farmers. These external factors have further hindered or reversed the early gains of crop yield enhancement, posing additional obstacles in the path of agricultural development in Africa.

Nonetheless, there has been significant progress in certain areas:  the African continent now produces approximately 30 million metric tons of fertilizer each year, which is twice as much as it currently consumes.

This increase in local fertilizer manufacturing is the result of over $15 billion of investments by the private sector, primarily focused on local production.

Second, public-private partnerships have been formed to address challenges related to fertilizer and nutrient use efficiency, research and development, and improved research infrastructures such as soil labs.

Third, average fertilizer use at the farm level has more than doubled in the last 18 years since the Abuja declaration. To address all these challenges, opportunities and more, the African Union and its partners have organized the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health (AFSH) Summit 2024, which took  place from May 7-9th, 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya.

The summit brought together relevant stakeholders to highlight the crucial role of fertilizer and soil health in stimulating sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture.

The Summit goal was to achieve a negotiated Africa-focused Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan, offer policy directions and concrete recommendations for African governments in the coming decade, establish an implementation roadmap for the action plan, mobilize policymakers, development organizations, and other stakeholders to enhance soil health and fertilizer use, and strengthen the private sector while addressing challenges related to landscapes and systems for efficient nutrient and water resource utilization.

By endorsing the action plan to improve soil health and fertilizer use in African agriculture, leaders and stakeholders will show their commitment towards the implementation.  The action plan will guide policy decisions and interventions in the next decade.

Sustainable pro-poor productivity growth and economic development in the agricultural sector will only happen when leaders are committed and are prepared to be bold about the necessary commitment and changes the continent must undertake.  Finally, it is my hope that the summit will pave the way for increased collaboration, knowledge sharing, and investments in soil health and fertilizer use, ultimately unlocking the potential of African agriculture.

We are constantly reminded of the need to balance human needs and ingenuity with environmental needs, fragility and finiteness.  For Africa, let’s be deliberate and let’s do what is right for us today but also for future generations of this continent.

The good news is that we have a lot to learn from and we are trying to do this when there are incredible new tools in research, predictive analytics, AI etc. if well harnessed can make our economic transformation journey so much less painful.

By Dr. Agnes Kalibata, President AGRA