As the United Nations projects a global population rise to 9.8 billion by 2050, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) stands at the epicenter of this demographic uproar. Projections indicate that the region’s population will double to 2.4 billion by 2050, demanding a radical rethinking of agricultural strategies to avert looming crises of food insecurity, malnutrition, and poverty. Yet, the quantity and nutritional quality of food we grow hinges on the health of the soil it is grown in.
Globally, poor soil quality hampers agricultural productivity and livestock production. In SSA, the decline in soil fertility since the early 20th century has emerged as a looming threat to food security, environmental sustainability, and economic growth, particularly for Africa’s most vulnerable populations. In the face of challenges such as low productivity, limited access to agricultural technologies, weak markets, and the impacts of climate change, African farmers find themselves at a critical crossroads. Additionally, limited access to affordable fertilizers and seeds leads to soil nutrient mining and substantial soil degradation. If unaddressed, the soil will become depleted and nonresponsive.
The 2006 Africa Fertilizer Summit in Abuja, Nigeria, was a pivotal moment in acknowledging the need to rejuvenate African soils and boost fertilizer use. African Union member states committed to Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM), an approach incorporating mineral fertilizers and organic amendments like crop residues and composts.
Improving soil health
Traditional farming practices in SSA have struggled to sustain or intensify crop production, especially given increasing population growth and reduced fallow land. Soil policies should make information and data accessible, promoting the understanding that soil health underpins long-term productivity and its economic and social benefits. The current crisis, exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine conflict, trade restrictions, and sanctions, has made fertilizers less affordable. Consequently, the average agricultural productivity factor during 2011-2021 in SSA is just 0.18%, compared with 1.14% globally. Farmers grapple with labor, cash, and credit shortages, underscoring the need for comprehensive solutions.
Healthy soil increases agricultural productivity, sequesters carbon, and retains moisture. Therefore, investments in soil health must be shared by value chain actors, including farmers, private sector actors, governments, and policymakers.
The focus must shift from just increasing crop yields to improving soil health and enhancing agricultural systems’ resilience to climate change. Policymakers and other partners should facilitate digitally enabled fertilizer management recommendations and create conditions that enable smallholder farmers to implement these recommendations at scale. In the development of new implementable solutions involvement of beneficiaries is essential for co-creating solutions for successful adoption.
During the recent COP28, discussions touched upon the significant relationship between climate change and food systems, including agriculture. These conversations highlighted the necessity for sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices as part of the broader climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. This shift towards sustainable farming practices reflects a growing understanding of agriculture’s role in the global response to climate challenges.
Improving Fertilizer Use Efficiency
With healthy soils, food production can exceed food demand, even in the face of rapid population growth and dietary changes, by increasing crop yields and improving food security. Mineral fertilizers in combination with other complementary inputs are essential for higher crop yields and are most effective when combined with proper soil and crop management practices.
Policies designed to enhance fertilizer use must be combined with interventions that support market development in the context of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, and post-harvest management to reduce losses, to ensure that increased crop yields translate into higher incomes for farmers and consequently reduce household poverty. With judicious fertilizer use, viable business opportunities, and supporting policies, healthy soils can sustainably improve agricultural productivity, responsibly enabling the planet to nourish a population of 9.8 billion and beyond.
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By Dr. Amit Roy, Chair, Sasakawa Africa Association