Wednesday September 3 2014

African farmers advised to maintain soil health for improved productivity

By Lominda Afedraru

Adis Ababa- Farmers in Africa are faced with the challenge of a number of factors that lead to infertile soils leading to less productivity farm inputs.

Some of the challenges arise as a result of problems like soil erosion due to flooding, soil silting, lack of crop rotation to keep soils fertile, prolonged droughts and lack of fertilisers and organic farming among others.

However,  a number of stakeholders both public and private sector are putting their hands together in a bid to sensitise farmers on to how they can keep their soils fertile for improved agricultural production.

One such a stakeholder is the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) that has a programme particularly on soil health with the main objective of creating physical and financial access to appropriate soil nutrients and fertiliser use by small holder farmers in an equitable manner.

The Agra soil health programme management is aiming at reaching 4.1 million small holder farmers in the thirteen different countries where the programme is being implemented.

The countries include Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.

The programme implementation is already on going and the team is works jointly in collaboration with public institutions like research institutes, private sector, policy makers who are directly involved in ensuring soil quality is maintained in a bid for farmers to realise better yields.

The team tries to ensure that there is knowledge-sharing with farmers on how to maintain their soil health, agronomic practices and technology packages in an efficient, equitable and sustainable manner.

The director for the programme Dr Bashir Jama while presenting an overview about the soil health initiative at the 2014 African Green Revolution Forum (AGRF),  said the project  is aimed at increasing income, improve food security and reduce household poverty by promoting the use and adoption of integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) practices among smallholder farmers and creating an enabling environment for farmers to adopt the practices in an efficient, equitable and sustainable manner across sub-Saharan Africa.

Farmers are encouraged to use quality germplasm developed by scientists in research institutes coupled with fertiliser use and organic manure for better adaption on their local farms.

Giving examples from farmers in Malawi,  Dr Jama explained that farmers whose soils have less nutrients, they should use local organic manure which they can generate from animal dung as well as fertiliser use.

Citing the example from Uganda, he said farmers in this country have been in position to carry out intercropping as means of improving their soil nutrients as well as use of legume crops that have been inoculated with Rhizobia for nitrogen fixation.

‘’Improving soil fertility is fundamental to enhancing the productivity of small holder agriculture in Africa and it is the starting point. Without it, investments in other yield enhancing technologies are not likely to bear much fruit. Technically there is agreement among the experts in soil and agronomy that the best approach is one that integrates organic and inorganic sources of nutrients and this is the reason why AGRA started this program in the year 2008,’’ he explained.

What the team does in every country is to create awareness of possible technologies by setting up demonstration gardens in different farmer locations where one farm is embedded with nutrients such as fertilisers while another has the component of use of legume crops for nitrogen fixation while the other is purely with not any technology application.

However,  although this theory seemed to be working, the team wanted to take the approach of going beyond demonstration gardens  by involving scientific skills and so leading to training 170 soil scientists in the different countries of operation.

These scientists are able to develop hybrid seeds which farmers are encouraged to purchase from seed dealers and grow in their farms while exercising good agronomy practices as well as use of fertiliser in order to realise good yields.

Dr Abednego Kiwia,  the coordinator of the SHP explains that the ISFM scale initiative aims at extending soil health technology packages to 4.1 m farming households by end of 2014.

To date, about 3.5 million farmers have been made aware of the technologies through various means including field days  and 1.7 million of these farmers are using the ISFM technologies which have resulted in tripling of the yields of major cereals  crops such as maize, sorghum, rice, and finger millet among others.

 Farmers have also realised doubled yields of their main grain legumes such as beans, soybeans, cowpeas, chick pea and pigeon pea among others

The focus of the ISFM Scale programme, which is the flagship of the Soil Health Programme, is on sustainable intensification of smallholder agriculture. 

As a result the team takes a production ecological approach for purposes of targeting interventions to the specific needs of the different farming systems and geographical locations.

The team is able to identify the yield gaps, and help farmers to close them profitably through approaches that integrate organic and inorganic sources of nutrients and good agronomic practices.

This includes conservation agriculture where feasible factors such as irrigation in case of drought stricken times, conservation of water through water harvesting in small dams as well as terracing as a means of controlling soil erosion.

Farmers who adopt the ISFM approach employ a wide range of soil management and farming techniques that work together to revive and maintain the capacity of the land to support food production.

 In the use of organic matter farmers are expected to use crop residues, animal manure and compost to enrich depleted soils but these interventions, by themselves, are not sufficient and regular planting soil enriching legume crops like cowpea, pigeon pea, beans or soybean is expected to be done by farmers

 Farmers are expected to focus on adopting farming practices that reduce erosion and improve water use efficiency, like lightly tilling the soil without actually turning over the earth or growing crops in terraced fields that efficiently collect and conserve rainwater.


Most farmers where the program is being implemented mainly focus of fertilizer use like those in Tanzania, Kenya, Mali, Uganda, Zambia and Rwanda using phosphate fertilizer.


In Nigeria a number of extension workers have been trained to help pass information to the farmers on soil health management.


Dr George Bigirwa, the Associate director of the Programme for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) in Agra is of the view that for the soil health program to operate well, there is need for farmers to be organized into groups in a bid to access services as a group as well as sell their produce through bulk marketing through the cooperative unions.

 The statistics of farm production in Africa compared to the developed world show quiet a big difference as a result of farmers failing to manage their soil health.

 While farmers in many parts of the world regularly harvest up to five tons of maize per hectare about 2.5 acres, African farmers typically harvest one ton.

In Rwanda and Uganda, scientists blame nutrient mining for banana yields that are 5 to 30 tons per hectare when they should be around 70.

Cassava yields in Ghana average about ten to 12 tons per hectare when they should be at around 40 to 60 tons.

Overall, soil health issues are costing African farmers US $4 billion annually in lost crop productivity.