Sustainable yield increases require healthy soils.
Photo: ©Paul Ohaga / GIZ

African countries decide to tackle soil health challenges

Early in May 2024, the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health (AFSH) Summit, organised by the African Union (AU) and the Government of Kenya, took place in Nairobi. About 4,000 participants, including over 60 African heads of state and ministers, policy-makers, the private sector, NGOs, academia and donor organisations, attended the summit to address pressing issues concerning fertiliser use and soil health.

“A nation that destroys the soil destroys itself,” declared Monique Nsanzabaganwa, Deputy Chairperson of the African Union Commission, quoting former US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, during the meeting. In African countries, food insecurity and malnutrition have risen in the last ten years, as have dependencies on the global markets for food and fertilisers. The International Fertilizer Development Center (IFDC) estimated a production deficit of 30 million tons of grain in 2021. It sees the food supply of 60 to 90 million people at risk, especially in Mali, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This is, inter alia, due to prolonged and widespread soil degradation. Many African soils are by nature heavily weathered, nutrient-poor and acidified. Unsustainable management practices and continuous under-fertilisation are the main reasons for severe nutrient depletion and reduced soil fertility, which result in low yields. The Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and the Corona pandemic have aggravated this trend, heavily impacting on the availability of and access to fertilisers. In the face of these challenges, the importance of sustainable fertiliser and soil management is becoming increasingly apparent.

A clear paradigm shift

The Summit equally focused on improving fertiliser use and soil health from an integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) perspective. The ISFM concept comprises a set of soil fertility management practices, including the use of efficient fertilisers – both mineral and organic – and improved crop varieties, combined with knowledge on how to adapt the practices to local conditions. “A balanced approach to soil fertiliser management is critical,” stated Nangolo Mbumba, President of Namibia. And Lazarus Chakwera, President of Malawi, added: “Even though our efforts to increase the access and use of inorganic fertiliser have led to an increase in our national agricultural output, the benefits have not been enjoyed by all as desired – the missing link is the urgency to address all soil health issues.” This approach represented a clear paradigm shift from the Abuja Declaration on Fertilizer for the African Green Revolution of 2006, whose main objective was to increase fertiliser use to 50 kg/ ha. As a result of the Summit, all 55 AU member states adopted the Nairobi Declaration, the 10-Year Action Plan on Fertilizers and Soil Health and the overarching Soil Initiative for Africa. These documents not only provide an important reference framework for future work on soil health and agricultural productivity in Africa but can support the sustainable transformation of agriculture and food systems, too.

The Nairobi Declaration aims to triple domestic production of organic and inorganic fertilisers by 2034 and to improve access and affordability for smallholder farmers. In addition, countries committed to reversing soil degradation and restoring soil health to at least 30 per cent of degraded soils within the same timeframe. The 10-year Action Plan translates the Nairobi Declaration into four outcomes with corresponding lines of action. Until the end of the year, the AU and its development agency AUDA-NEPAD plan to set up a secretary for pan-African coordination, support and monitoring of implementation. These processes shall be closely linked to the mechanisms of the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) that is currently under revision. AU member states are supposed to draw up national action plans backed by appropriate funding until the end of the year.

Anticipating the AFSH Summit, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the World Bank hosted a round table on Fertilizers and Soil Health in May 2023 to strengthen soil health and improve the use of fertilisers as a key element in stimulating agricultural production and combatting food insecurity in West Africa, under the patronage of the President of the Republic of Togo, Faure Gnassingbé. The adopted Lomé Declaration can be seen as regional implementation framework for the Nairobi Declaration for West Africa. It remains to be seen to what extent other regional economic communities will join the coordination process to achieve the goals of the Nairobi Declaration and its 10-year Action Plan.

The third of the adopted summit documents, the Soil Initiative for Africa, focuses on longer-term investments in soil science research to reach land users across Africa with the best practices, information and technologies available. The 10-year Action Plan is meant as first implementation phase of the Initiative.

To achieve its goals, the Nairobi Declaration specifically aims at fostering partnerships between various interest groups and investments in fertilisers and soil management to sustainably increase productivity in Africa. In this same spirit, 14 donors, amongst them the African Development Bank (AfDB), the European Commission, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, committed in their Joint Development Partner Statement to support the implementation of the Nairobi Declaration, the 10-year Action Plan and the Soil Initiative in a coordinated manner. “In Africa, for every one kilogram of fertiliser applied, we see 10 kilograms of grain,” Enock Chikava, Director, Agricultural Delivery Systems at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, stressed. “In America and in Europe, the same amount of fertiliser yields 30 kg of grain. This difference is what we call soil health. There is something taking place under our feet, and we need to correct it.”

Together with its African partners, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH participated in several side events. The Kenyan Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock took the opportunity to present its agricultural and soil management policy, which was developed with the support of the Global Programme Soil Protection and Soil Rehabilitation for Food Security commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Since 2014, through the work of the Global Programme, more than 600,000 smallholder farmers have applied sustainable soil management practices and have been able to rehabilitate more than 800,000 hectares of land. They have increased yields by an average of 33 per cent, directly benefiting the lives of over two million people.

Birthe Lappe, Christine Wolf, GIZ GmbH, Bonn

See also article "Alternative organic resources for soil health in Africa".

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