Africa Food Shortages Blamed on Poor Soils

A new report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) says that while farmers in many parts of the world regularly harvest up to five tons of maize per hectare, those in Africa harvest just one ton on average.  Outdated farming practices combined with inherently low soil fertility has been blamed for the low yields.   

Many countries in Africa often face food shortages, as farmers struggle to grow enough produce for the entire population.

A new report published by Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa shows poor farming practices has led to poor soil fertility.

The analysis found many farmers have failed to rotate crops and apply organic fertilizers.  It says there is also a problem of persistent soil erosion.  

AGRA soil health program coordinator Abed Kiwia says the organization is trying to promote basic farming principles in order to improve soil fertility and produce more food.

“Like for example, you weed your crops in good time, you do the right spacing, and then you also do water and soil conservation, you have terraces along your farm so as to control soil erosion, you control loss of nutrients.  So there is a package where we are integrating a number of what we call best-bet agronomic practices,” said Kiwia.  

So far, AGRA’s soil program has trained three million farmers in 13 African countries in an approach to growing crops dubbed “Integrated Soil Fertility Management.”

Kiwia says the approach involves mixing in organic matter to the crops.

“Here we are telling them, ‘Use fertilizers.’   Because we know fertilizers in Africa are expensive we are telling them integrate them with organic input, which are found locally,” said Kiwia. “For example we have farm manure, green manure, there are also agroforestry trees which are very good in providing organic nutrate.”

But soil scientists in Africa are not getting the same result as their counterparts in Asia.  Soil researchers say part of the problem is that in most areas, the soil has rocks, giving it lower fertility.

Dr. Keith Shepherd is a principal scientist at the World Agroforestry Center.  He says there is need to determine the nutrients that are missing in the soil.

“There is need to carefully target which fertilizers are appropriate where, and this needs soil and plant testing to diagnose what are the limiting nutrients and we are faced with an extremely variable situation in small farming systems in Africa, and even within the same farm we have very different patches of poor and good soil as a result of past management,” said Shepherd.

Agricultural experts say despite the obstacles soil fertility can be improved, and if proper steps are taken there should be no need for African countries to import food.    


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