A recent article in the appearing in one of Kenya’s dailies titled ‘Acidic soils deal blow to food security efforts’ painted a true picture of the soil health condition in some parts of the country.
However, it is important to note that soil health is just one of the aspects that determine crop yields. If a farmer plants low quality seed in healthy soils, then the yields will still disappoint.
Adoption of good agronomic practices and timing of the planting period based on the prevailing climatic conditions also determines the yields – particularly for farmers who rely on rainfall. Overall having assurance at the marketing end serves as a great incentive for farmers to uptake appropriate seeds, appropriate fertilizers, good agronomic practices and other technologies.
It therefore calls for an integrated approach of the above elements augmented with reliable weather and climate information services, and extension service provision to advise farmers on particular agronomical practices based on agroecological zones.
It is also important to note that as much as Kenyan soils are already ‘sick,’ there is a lot happening on the ground with various organizations working out solutions to the existing problems as Kenya walk towards a green revolution and self reliance.
In 2014 for example, with support from the World Bank and the European Union, the National Accelerated Agricultural Inputs Access Programme (NAAIAP) in collaboration with Kenya Agricultural Livestock and Research Organization (KALRO) and the Department of Kenya Soil Survey undertook a study to evaluate soil suitability for maize production in Kenya, where over 4000 soil samples were analyzed. One of the aims of this survey was to identify key soil fertility constraints so as to improve crop yield within the project areas, and to provide recommendations of most appropriate fertilizer formulation/blend for the cropping systems and soil fertility combinations.
As a result, there was no one all inclusive recommendation for Kenyan farmers. Different counties and sub-counties had different types of soils that required different forms of interventions to meet the crop nutrients demand for improved productivity.
Following these results, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) commissioned another study in 2018, which identified some key issues constraining the effectiveness of the Kenyan fertilizer system.
One of them was lack of awareness among smallholder famers about the availability of fertilizer blends in the market.
But even worse, the study reported inadequate knowledge and capacity among the fertilizer companies to manufacture appropriate balanced fertilizer blends and other soil amelioration inputs such as lime.
In addition, some of the lime producing companies continues to produce the powder form of lime while others have granulated lime all of which are of different quality and reactivity hence different application rates are recommended to farmers.
The study further found that some of the companies do not even have capacity to granulate the lime. There is also need to explore possibilities of blending the multi-nutrient fertilizers with the granulated lime to reduce labour costs for farmers.
Until recently, the country had relied predominantly on commodity fertilizers DAP, NPK, urea and CAN. These products take over 70 percent of the market share. They normally over-supply nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) and limited amounts of potassium (K) – mostly for specialty crops, leaving the other crop micro-nutrients requirements unaddressed.
It is in this regard that AGRA has embarked on a capacity building initiative, using demo plots in 14 counties across the country, where the same crop is grown on different plots of land in the same place, but using different types of fertilizers and fertilizer blends for farmers and county officials to see the difference.
The organization is also trying to fine-tune and validate the emerging soil- and crop-specific fertilizer blends in support of enhanced and resilient maize, beans and potato production.
This is because most of fertilizer products in the Kenyan markets are produced without reference to soil nutrient status and crop needs. Consequently, they often oversupply some nutrients and under supply others. Such fertilizers fail to support the crop for higher yields while also leading to direct monetary losses in cases where inappropriate fertilizers are purchased and applied to the crops.
It is therefore through use of the right fertilizers/blends and lime on the right soils, with the right crop that Kenya will stagger from the abyss of food insecurity and sustainably feed her people.
The author is AGRA’s country manager for Kenya. JMacharia@agra.org