Getting Dirty: Boosting Soil Fertility in Africa



soil2The UN has named 2015 the International Year of Soils, in a time when the health of the world’s soils, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are in dire need of attention. While populations in Sub-Saharan Africa are on the increase, soils are becoming increasingly degraded, resulting in a reduction of per capita food production and agricultural productivity. Soils are naturally poor in many regions, and farmers continually farm the same patches of land, stripping it of nutrients and leaving no opportunity for it to lie fallow or redevelop fertility. Climate change, erosion, and desertification have further compounded the problem. The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) estimates that 65% of arable land in Africa has become degraded. Fortunately, AGRA has been educating African smallholder farmers in improving soil quality and fertility through its Soil Health Program.

soilAGRA’s Soil Health Program encourages farmers in in Sub-Saharan Africa to adopt an approach called integrated soil fertility management (ISFM). ISFM was most recently recommended as a viable approach in a December 2014 report by Agriculture for Impact. ISFM uses a series of agricultural practices that are adapted to the local agricultural context and make more efficient use of nutrients and water. It typically advocates for using a mix of both organic matter and small amounts of mineral fertilizers to improve soil fertility. Fertilizer use is very low in Sub-Saharan Africa, but purely organic fertilization techniques cannot boost agricultural productivity enough to provide sufficient food security to the region. ISFM also promotes agroforestry, crop rotation, and intercropping practices. The Soil Health Program therefore seeks to improve farmer access to fertilizer, promote the adoption of soil-friendly farming practices, and provide training and education in order to promote soil health research in Sub-Saharan Africa.


Increased Productivity

Through the Soil Health Program, AGRA has provided 130,000 demonstrations to smallholder farmers in 13 countries over five years. Demonstrations take place on farmer’s own land or in school and church yards. The demonstrations are meant to show farmers the differences between plots with no inputs, plots using micro doses of fertilizers, and plots using techniques such as intercropping or crop rotation. In addition to physical demonstrations, the Africa Soil Health Consortium (ASHC), a partner of AGRA, reinforces the message by providing printed materials and videos in local languages. The result is that farmers who adopted ISFM practices have increased their incomes by 20-50%. In Ghana alone, 117,000 farmers have increased their maize yields from 1.5 tonnes to 3.5 tonnes per hectare.

soil3AGRA has championed an approach that takes the local context into account, improves food security, and reduces local poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. ISFM recognizes that different regions have different farming systems, crops, and soil fertility needs, and it seeks to take all of these into account when posing solutions. AGRA’s approach to working with farmers on their own land and in their own language also contributes to improved adoption rates and sustainability. The results of the Soil Health Program indicate that ISFM is an approach that holds promise for farmers across all over Sub-Saharan Africa.




Valerie Busch

Valerie Busch

Valerie is a development professional based in Toronto, Ontario.

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