Feeding Africa from a new soil improvement paradigm

Africa’s population is growing rapidly and the inhabitants on the continent are speedily urbanising. In 2016, the continent was home to 1.216 billion people. The 2015 revision of the World Population Prospects: Key Findings and Advance Tables, a publication of the United Nations, projected, however, that this figure will more than double to 2.478 billion people in 2050, while it will be about 1.679 billion people in 2030.
The significance of this population increase will be brought to bear on many indices of human life on the continent. Considering the 2030 Global Agenda of Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 11, 12, 13 and 15, Africa needs to rise up early to the challenges accompanying the numerical growth and urban development. In line with the SDG 2, the growing population will require more food, most of which is expected to be produced on African soil. This brings SDG 15 to focus, with the responsibility to treat the land prudently.
Africa, currently the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent, with a landmass of about 30.3 million km² including adjacent islands, is the world’s hope for feeding the globe as the future beckons. But the current prevailing picture can be discouraging as domestically grown supplies simply have not adequately kept pace with rising demand which, often, has to be augmented through imports.
For decades, Sub-Saharan Africa was assumed to be impervious to the promise of high-yield crop varieties or new fertilisers. Population pressure on Africa’s arable land has been forcing smallholder farmers to farm on marginal lands with infertile soil and to use cultivated land more intensively without commensurate replenishment. Yields turn out well below crop potential and food production has lagged behind population growth in many African countries, resulting in chronic food insecurity. These realities tended to have lent some credence to a notion that African soils are poor and unproductive for agricultural activities.
Two anecdotes will suffice to prove such a notion wrong. Indeed, the time has come to exhibit that side of Africa in terms of capacity to feed itself now and in the future. The first is the foray of Dr. Pedro A. Sanchez to Africa, after a successful stint in Brazil. Dr. Sanchez’s ground-breaking research work in the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), now known as the World Agroforestry Centre, based in Nairobi, led to development of low-cost and comprehensive soil rejuvenation programmes for east and southern Africa.
But before Africa, Dr. Sanchez, a pioneer in the field of tropical soils and agroforestry at the University of California, Berkeley, led an epoch-making work that turned once infertile soil into productive farmland, dramatically increasing crop yields for hundreds of thousands of small farmers in Brazil. In the mid-70s, his leading efforts to turn the acidic, tropical soils of the Cerrado region of Brazil into 75 million acres (about 30 million hectares) of productive farmland – in his Tropical Soils Research Programme – disproved the long-held assumption that the region’s red soil was unsuitable for agriculture. The research created soil that was both drought-resistant and fertile for crops such as corn, rice, soybeans and wheat.
Supporting the Brazilian government’s initiative to develop a tropical area equivalent in size to Western Europe brought the Cerrado to life. Sanchez brought “a paradigm shift” into “how people viewed tropical soils,” said David Zilberman, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Centre for Sustainable Resource Development who noted also that “a region that had previously been dismissed as farmable land has since become a new breadbasket for Brazil.”
In Brazil, average yields increased by 60 per cent, total grain harvests tripled, and Brazilian soybean production grew to match that of the United States. Today, soy, a billion-dollar industry that spans continents and feeds millions of livestock, has become a major part of our diets. Brazil, today, is a leading exporter of soy and chicken meat.
Having played a significant role in improving Cerrado agriculture, and restoring fertility to some of the world’s poorest and most degraded soils, Dr. Sanchez and his colleagues recorded triumphs in improving the world’s food supply and reducing hunger, thus destroying the myth that tropical soils could not produce food. His methods for restoring soil fertility using naturally available resources have dramatically increased crop yields for hundreds of thousands of small farmers from Brazil to Africa. Through his efforts, Dr. Sanchez has become an inspiration and a beacon of hope to all those struggling to survive on marginal lands around the world, particularly Africa.
The second story, also an illustration from elsewhere outside Africa, is the replication of success stories from Bangladesh in Africa. This seeks to underscore the fact that fertiliser, in the form of either inorganic or organic amendments, is essential to maintain soil productivity. It also seeks to show that fertiliser application has its strategic benefits in ensuring food security and balanced fertiliser is part of the productivity-enhancing technologies.
Starting with rice paddy fields, the International Fertiliser Development Centre (IFDC) introduced fertiliser deep placement (FDP) and other improved agricultural management practices in Bangladesh in the mid-1980s, generating significant agronomic, economic and environmental benefits. Before FDP, and under continuous intensive cultivation, soils lose mineralised organic nitrogen, and consequently available phosphorus becomes largely inaccessible to plant uptake.
At the continental level, therefore, Africa lags behind in fertiliser use, which could partly explain the generally poor yields of crops in most countries. World Bank data showed that, in 2014, the world average in fertiliser application was 138 kilogrammes per hectare. The UK’s figure was 243.4, US 137.6, Philippines 183.1, Pakistan 134.4, the Netherlands 241.2, India 165.1, Tanzania 8.4, South Africa 60.6, Nigeria 10.9, Ghana 15.7 and the Sub-Saharan Africa average was 16 kg/ha.
Africa’s adoption of fertiliser for soil and crop enrichment still remains dismally low across the board. This is despite the ambitious 2006 Africa Fertliser Summit that was held in Abuja as well as the subsequent relentless efforts of the nascent Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) where the Nigeria’s immediate past minister of Agriculture and current President of the African Development Bank played a pivotal role in promotion of fertiliser use.
Among the operational errors affecting fertiliser use in Africa, low productivity in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa is associated with the limited adoption of fertiliser. Where used at all, the tendency to broadcast on the soil surface leads to loss of nearly a third of the fertiliser. Reducing the amount of fertiliser used and lessening the environmental damage to the atmosphere and water is a desirable choice. Reports have shown that using fertiliser deep placement (FDP) technology increases crop yields and incomes; it also helps preserve environment.
What IFDC began as African FDP initiative in 2009, targeting 13 countries across the continent, is now generating good results in Burkina Faso, Niger and Nigeria. As in Bangladesh, FDP’s advantages are proven. Rice yields with FDP (compared with broadcasting) average 30 per cent more (an additional 1.2 metric tons per hectare). In double cropping systems (two rice crops per year), farmers are realising about $400 in additional annual income per hectare than farmers using traditional practices.
China, India and Indonesia grow the most rice. Much smaller Bangladesh is the world’s fourth-largest rice producer; farmers there produced nearly 32 million metric tons (MMT) in 2010 on 11.36 million ha. In contrast, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) – with a land area of 23.6 million square kilometres (nearly 200 times larger than Bangladesh) produced only 21.5 MMT of rice on 10 million ha in 2010. The African continent ranks eighth in global paddy rice production (with the majority grown in West Africa). Rice has become the staple food for millions of Africans and is a major part of the diets of any others. However, even though African production has increased at an annual rate of 6 per cent, Africa remains a net importer of rice.
The foregoing two stories elicit great prospects for science to remedy soil fertility problems. Research findings on tropical soils within and outside Africa have, however, indicated that the prospects are bright. Intensive farming has proven to be beneficial if done right. Commercial farms are gradually springing up and many more will be established in coming decades. Because fertiliser prices are much higher in Africa than the rest of the world, mineral fertiliser use is still low and soil nutrients are being depleted.
Africa’s positioning to feed the teeming populace requires a better understanding of the policy implications and a set of recommendations on the best policies and investment incentives necessary for widespread and large scale adoption and use of balanced fertilisers. Policies to address these and issues of access to land for increased productivity and better returns on investment across the continent are, however, urgently needed.
Lack of logistical infrastructure in many parts of Africa has been identified as one major factor hindering farmers from gaining efficient access to fertilisers and other essential agricultural inputs, and from transporting their crops efficiently to market. Yara, globally acclaimed as the largest mineral fertiliser company, is reportedly making efforts to bridge such logistical infrastructure gap within an area of its operation in Africa.
Through a $60 million investment in a programme to improve ports and roads, designed to create agricultural growth corridors in Mozambique and Tanzania, Yara is tackling this problem through an initiative with local governments and support from the Norwegian government. In Mozambique alone, the corridor is expected to benefit more than 200,000 small farmers and create 350,000 new jobs.
Placement technology has led to increased yields in rice, maize and sorghum by between 30 per cent and 80 per cent. These results have inspired the Nigerian federal government’s policy directive to use fertiliser blends recommended from soil maps beginning the 2017 cropping season. In addition to FDP, using urea or NPK, reports have pointed the way forward for the use of blends of fertiliser containing various micronutrients to correct soil-specific nutrient deficiencies.
Countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Mozambique, that use macro, secondary and micro-nutrient-balanced fertilisers have realised 40 per cent more yield per hectare than the “unbalanced” NPK 15-15-15. Recent work by the USAID-supported Feed the Future Nigeria Agro Input Project in partnership with the National Programme for Food Security (NPFS) and AGTHO Fertiliser Company has shown there is a positive difference in yield by replacing NPK 15-15-15 with NPK 20-10-10-1Zn-2S as basal application in the Urea Deep Placement.
Nigeria’s fertiliser market is the largest in West Africa, accounting for more than half of the region’s fertiliser consumption. Already Nigeria has 108 balanced fertiliser recommendations for all crops and for all 36 states and the FCT, and the government has signed an agreement with the government of Morocco for the supply of fertiliser raw materials on concessionary terms to boost local blending. Making soil and crop-specific fertiliser blends available and accessible to smallholder Nigerian farmers has policy and investment implications for fertiliser suppliers, blenders and farmers. The same applies elsewhere in Africa.
The e-wallet system under the Agricultural Transformation Agenda attempted to inculcate the use of fertiliser into small scale farmers, using NPK. Now, it is time to emphasise balanced nutrients in their application. Both initiatives should bring quantity and quality across the continent if adopted by all. What was possible in Brazil and Bangladesh is now possible in Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso or Burundi. With the crumbling of the various constraints, Africa looks set to feed itself and the world!

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