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Closing Africa’s yield gap through use of fertilisers

Man, despite his historic pretensions, sophistication and art, owes the fact of his existence to a 6-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains — Anonymous

In both his key address to Kenyans at Kasarani stadium and AU leaders in Addis Ababa in July, US President Barack Obama emphasised that Africa was on the move—10 of the world’s fastest growing economies are in the continent with a third of its 54 countries realising GDP growth of over six per cent.

Africa, therefore, is the next stopover for investors focusing on the economic opportunities available. One such opportunity is in the agricultural sector which half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa rely on for their livelihood.

Nonetheless, the estimated 226 million chronically under-nourished people are a testimony to the continued fruitless investments made in the past decade.

Yet it is a documented fact that growth in the agricultural sector can have dramatic impacts towards a hunger-free and sustainable Africa, the World Bank puts the growth potential of the sector to at least twice that of any other sector.

So what is the missing link? The problem lies in Africa’s soil, one of the most overlooked ingredients in farming. Healthy, fertile soils are an imperative starting point for agro-based development, yet Africa’s soils are among the most degraded in the world.

This degradation continues as a result of deforestation, overgrazing, continuous deep-ploughing and inappropriate use that leads to the ‘mining’ and depletion of soil nutrients. Good agriculture can, and should, restore nutrients, conserve water and prevent soil erosion.

A key answer to the puzzle of low food production in Africa lies in its incredibly low use of fertiliser. Sub-Saharan Africa represents 10 per cent of the global population, yet only 0.8 per cent of total fertiliser use. Given the fact that about three-quarters of sub-Saharan Africa’s soils are degraded, one wonders why the minimal use of fertiliser.

It is this state of affairs that prompted the 2014 African Green Revolution Forum held in Addis Ababa to call for an agricultural revolution on the continent to bridge the yield gap, lift rural communities out of poverty and realise the economic growth potential through agricultural investment.

Among the resolutions passed by the forum is to invest in partnerships to build the capacity needed to bring about this transformation. Part of this investment includes funding discussion forums and conducting training for soil scientists and other industry stakeholders.

This is expected to trickle down the food value chain to the smallholder farmer. One such forum is a training workshop that was held in Nairobi in July. In July, a partnership between the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the International Fertiliser Development Centre brought researchers, extension services and key players in the fertiliser industry and government policy makers for a training on implementation and out-scaling of balanced crop nutrition in the Africa.

Soil scientists and other key players in crop nutrition at the workshop advocated for building capacity on mapping out soil nutrient deficiencies, determining balanced fertilisers and dissemination of results to stakeholders, policy makers and smallholder farmers.

To achieve this, innovation and change are needed to develop a vibrant fertiliser and agro-input value chain in Africa, powered by effective multi-stakeholder partnerships and capacity building.

Key to this new approach are smallholder farmers who urgently need to access fertiliser to become more productive and grow enough and more nutritious food, become reliable suppliers to the broader agri-food chain, increase incomes and improve the lives and create new jobs and economic opportunities for the youth and women.

Access to fertiliser by smallholder farmers will result to healthy soils which are crucial part of an African-led green revolution that has the potential to dramatically reduce hunger and poverty. Such efforts need to be scaled up if substantial gains can be achieved in save the 75 per cent of sub-Saharan degraded soils and the nutrient loss.

Access to crop nutrients by smallholder farmers (fertilizers, manure, compost, crop residues) is paramount for maintaining soil fertility and raising agricultural productivity. The impact of fertilisers is immediate.

Within a single cropping season, farm productivity can be doubled or tripled. It is only when this has been achieved that the youth and women can benefit from the recent funding announced at the 2015 Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The author is a communications consultant

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