Africa's Urgent Call to improve Soil Health for effective Fertilizer use

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    Gina Edward-Uwadiale
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In Africa, the clock is ticking on food security. A critical pathway to securing this future is advancing soil health and making fertilizers available and affordable. However, this investment is no small feat due to the continent’s diverse soil types, inconsistent infrastructure, limited capacities, and varying policies. To effectively address these challenges, solutions must be geographically and contextually tailored, weaving in social, economic, and market dynamics and anchored by long-term commitment.

The Foundation of Fertilizer Effectiveness: Healthy Soils

As we consider fertilizers, their effective use is dependent on having healthy soils. Therefore, priority must be to build healthy soils. Only on this foundation can fertilizers effectively address the significant yield gaps plaguing African agriculture. Currently, 65% of Africa’s soil is degraded, reducing food production and increasing soil erosion, exacerbating desertification. This is a significant concern as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization notes that 83% of sub-Saharan Africans rely on the land for their livelihood. Moreover, to meet the demands of a growing population, food production in Africa must nearly double by 2050. A robust soil rebuilding program across the continent involves increased multi-stakeholder collaboration, enhanced data and research, scaled technologies, and the integration of diverse strategies. These strategies include crop rotations, no-till practices, the judicious use of organic and commercial fertilizers, and improved water management.

The Challenges Ahead

Declining soil health poses a significant and urgent challenge for Africa, impacting agricultural productivity. With climate change, soil degradation—including erosion, salinization, acidification, and fertility loss—along with global supply chain disruptions and a growing population demanding food security, tackling these soil health issues is crucial and cannot be delayed.  CGIAR is well aware of these challenges and has developed proven solutions to tackle them. The decline in soil health has hindered the effectiveness of fertilizer use resulting in stunted productivity growth, compromised food security, and threatened environmental sustainability. Up to 65 percent of African agricultural land, totaling 494 million hectares, is affected by soil degradation. This degradation exacerbates the impacts of climate change, heightening soil sensitivity to erosion and diminishing its capacity to absorb and retain water.

Yield gaps on the continent are stark, ranging from as little as two percent to over fifty percent. Furthermore, African fertilizer consumption is a mere 22kg per hectare of cropland, starkly below the global average of 195kg per hectare. The challenges continue with effectively utilizing these inputs, particularly among smallholder farmers who struggle with implementing Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) due to limited access to technology and inputs.

CGIAR’s Impact and Innovations

CGIAR’s contributions have been pivotal. From mapping soils using infrared spectroscopy in at least 17 African countries to supporting smarter agricultural investments, CGIAR’s efforts are restoring soils and boosting production. Our collaborations with governments in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, and beyond are helping smallholder farmers achieve efficient and effective nitrogen fertilizer management.

A notable innovation from CGIAR and its partners is the app-based decision support tool which has guided Ethiopian farmers on landscape-specific fertilizer application. Better-targeting brought yield increases of 15%, 19%, and 25% for wheat, Teff, and sorghum, respectively, over current practice among users.

Looking Forward: What Must Be Done

To sustain and expand these gains, CGIAR, alongside donors and partners, must deepen investments in:

  • Collaborative Efforts: Enhancing partnerships with African entities like AUDA-NEPAD and national governments.
  • Soil Health Indicators: Developing a comprehensive framework that includes indicators such as soil organic carbon and acidity, which are vital for assessing soil biodiversity.
  • Monitoring and Evaluation: Establishing national or regional systems to monitor soil health changes and integrating this data into digital resources for setting sustainability standards.
  • Climate Adaptation: Aligning fertilizer and soil health strategies with broader climate adaptation efforts.
  • Policy Support: Advocating for evidence-backed policies that secure land tenure and modify fertilizer subsidies to support sustainable practices for women, men and youth farmers.

Our Participation in the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit 

The recent launch of the African Union’s African Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan: 2023-2033 at a Nairobi summit May 7-9 is a timely response to these challenges. The Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit was hosted in Nairobi, Kenya, from May 7 to May 9, 2024, at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC). The summit addresses the ongoing deterioration of soil quality across the continent, which has hindered agricultural productivity and food security over several decades.

During the summit, Kenyatta University and the CGIAR Environment and Biodiversity Impact Platform co-convened a session titled “Revisiting the 2006 Abuja Fertilizer Declaration with Nitrogen use efficiency and yield-gap lenses.” Our experts discussed the challenges and advancements in nitrogen management, emphasizing its significant impact on both agronomic productivity and environmental sustainability. The discussions covered the integration of biophysical, economic, and social dimensions of nitrogen use, advocating for a balanced approach to nitrogen management to enhance soil health.

Highlighting the importance of nitrogen, the director of the CGIAR Environmental Health and Biodiversity Platform, Cargele Masso, stated, “We have focused on nitrogen during this event because it’s an amazing nutrient. One of the major nutrients. When we think about its cycle, we see that it has a lot of impact. It’s one of the nutrients beyond carbon that impacts a lot of greenhouse gas emissions.” He emphasized the need for further discussions on nitrogen’s significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions beyond just CO2 and its various loss pathways.

Betty Kibaara from the Rockefeller Foundation added insight on the financial aspects, noting, “Financing of soil health and fertilizer accessibility is key but it’s not the only thing – It’s an ecosystem of services to get finance to come in.”

CGIAR’s continued support of the global community is crucial. We can only close the yield gaps, enhance food security, and foster environmental sustainability in Africa through collective action. The future of African agriculture depends not just on new technologies but on holistic, integrated approaches that respect and rejuvenate the continent’s diverse landscapes.


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