Call for targeted fertiliser and soil health strategy to unlock the continent’s agricultural potential

Dr Agnes Kalibata, the President of AGRA.

Dr Agnes Kalibata, the President of AGRA.

Photo credit: Courtesy

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

Soil fertility decline not only reduces crop yield but also worsens 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 percent, compared to 25 percent 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.  

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

Many meetings have been held, and will keep being held in Africa and globally to address different aspects of the environment and its sustainability, in all these conversations, here are the priority areas I believe that all African governments must treat as critical policy areas: 

Policy Incentives and Investments: 

Governments should develop and implement policies that support smart subsidies for targeted fertilisers and inputs for soil health improvement. Smart subsidies can be used to aid farmers transition from conventional farming to a more sustainable farming system. 

Additionally, investments that target the restoration of degraded lands can be used to enhance productivity and also to improve carbon sequestration, and biodiversity, as well as reduction of climate risks. Studies have shown that the combined use of organic and mineral fertilisers could increase rainwater productivity by 50 percent - 200 percent, with a clear path to reduction of climate risks to crops. 

Land tenure policies: 

We need to prioritise land tenure policies to empower farmers to protect their land and landscapes. Stronger land use and protection policies should be adopted to ensure the sustainable use of this finite resource. There is a lot of evidence that shows that farmers protect the land from erosion and other physical damage when the incentives are right. There is no question that land titling to farmers is one of the many incentives to help reduce the high rate of ecosystem degradation and erosion. 

Support investments in fertiliser systems:

African governments should invest in improving access to both organic and mineral fertilisers to enhance soil health. This can be done through the promotion of domestic production, distribution, intra-regional trade of fertilisers and increasing the production and use of lime for managing soil acidity. The governments need to ensure the affordability and availability of fertilisers since this 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 increases crop yield by 35 percent - 50 percent, and its effect could be pronounced by an additional 20 percent - 25 percent when integrated with sources of carbon including green manuring and composting. 

Strengthening last-mile delivery systems: 

As a continent, we need to invest in functional extension systems and create capacity for availing locally relevant soil health and fertiliser management technologies and practices. By 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 fertiliser use. It’s important to note that, empowering farmers through farm-level innovation is crucial for promoting soil health and fertiliser use.  

AGRA and partners have demonstrated that it is possible to reduce the farmer extension ratio from 1:3000 to 1:500 and the last mile from over 22 kilometres to less than eight 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 five 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. 

Research and Innovation on soil health: 

African governments should support local research capacity and infrastructure, including functional soil labs. They must also enable and leverage private sector organisations, facilitating integration between research institutions, universities, and extension services, to enable the development and availability of new technologies to fasten addressing the challenges of soil health. An assessment of investments in research by CGIAR found that over the past 50 years, there had been a 10-dollar return on every dollar invested in research and development. 

Africa has made some impressive progress over the last couple of years. The continent now produces approximately 30 million metric tonnes of fertiliser each year, which is twice as much as it currently consumes. This increase in local fertiliser manufacturing is the result of over $15 billion in investments by the private sector, primarily focused on local production. 

Second, public-private partnerships have been formed to address challenges related to fertiliser and nutrient use efficiency, research and development, and improved research infrastructures such as soil labs. Third, average fertiliser use at the farm level has more than doubled in the last 18 years since the Abuja declaration. 

However, climate change and externalities such as the Ukraine-Russia war and the Covid-19 pandemic have intensified 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.

To address all these challenges, opportunities and more, the African Union and its partners are organising the Africa Fertiliser and Soil Health (AFSH) Summit 2024, which will take place this week from May 7-9th, 2024 in Nairobi, Kenya. The summit will bring together relevant stakeholders to highlight the crucial role of fertiliser and soil health in stimulating sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture. 

The summit is expected to negotiate for an African-focused fertiliser and soil health action plan, provide policy directions and concrete recommendations that will guide African governments in the next decade, create an operational roadmap to ensure the effective implementation of the action plan, mobilise policymakers and development organisations as well as other stakeholders to work towards improving soil health and fertiliser use, and, strengthen the private sector in addition to addressing the challenges of landscapes and systems for efficient use of nutrients and water resources. 

By endorsing the action plan to improve soil health and fertiliser 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.  

It is my hope that the summit will pave the way for increased collaboration, knowledge sharing, and investments in soil health and fertiliser 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, and AI, among others that if well harnessed, can make our economic transformation journey so much less painful.

By Dr Agnes Kalibata, the President of AGRA.

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