Fertiliser and soil health strategy needed to unlock Africa's agricultural potential


The cost of land degradation due to poor soil health is estimated to be between $850 and $1,400 (Sh113,500 - 186200) per year for every individual, with a global cost of between $6.3 and $10.6 trillion (Sh838 - 1,400 trillion) annually. 

Soil fertility decline not only reduces crop yield but also worsens the impacts of climate change by reducing the land’s resilience and capacity to adapt. 

Since the 1960s, land degradation in Africa has led to a significant expansion of agricultural land by about 300 per cent, compared to 25 per cent elsewhere.  This has happened at the expense of forests, wetlands, and other fragile systems.

This expansion is driven by the need to compensate for the loss of productivity caused by soil fertility decline.   

This week, the African Union and Government of Kenya hosted a Heads of State Summit in Nairobi Kenya to delve into the importance of soil health and fertilizer use in African food systems. 

Many meetings have been held, and will keep being held in Africa and globally to address different aspects of the environment and its sustainability, in all these conversations, here are the priority areas I believe that all African governments must treat as critical policy areas: 

Policy incentives and investments: Governments should develop and implement policies that support smart subsidies for targeted fertilisers and inputs for soil health improvement. Smart subsidies can be used to aid farmers transition from conventional farming to a more sustainable farming system. Additionally, investments that target the restoration of degraded lands can be used to enhance productivity and also to improve carbon sequestration, and biodiversity, as well as reduction of climate risks. Studies have shown that the combined use of organic and mineral fertilisers could increase rainwater productivity by 50 - 200 per cent, with a clear path to reduction of climate risks to crops. 

Land tenure policies: we need to prioritise land tenure policies to empower farmers to protect their land and landscapes. Stronger land use and protection policies should be adopted to ensure the sustainable use of this finite resource. There is a lot of evidence that shows that farmers protect the land from erosion and other physical damage when the incentives are right. There is no question that land titling to farmers is one of the many incentives to help reduce the high rate of ecosystem degradation and erosion. 

Support investments in fertiliser systems: African governments should invest in improving access to both organic and mineral fertilisers to enhance soil health. This can be done through the promotion of domestic production, distribution, intra-regional trade of fertilizers and increasing the production and use of lime for managing soil acidity. The governments need to ensure the affordability and availability of fertilizers since this is essential for soil nutrient replenishment and maintaining agricultural productivity. Nitrogen inputs should increase at least fourfold to close the yield gap in Africa. Liming of acid soils increases crop yield by 35 - 50 per cent, and its effect could be pronounced by an additional 20 - 25 per cent when integrated with sources of carbon including green manuring and composting. 

Strengthening last-mile delivery systems: As a continent, we need to invest in functional extension systems and create capacity for providing locally relevant soil health and fertiliser management technologies and practices. By providing advisory services to smallholder farmers and establishing regional networks for knowledge exchange will empower farmers to make informed decisions and adopt best practices for soil health and fertiliser use. It’s important to note that empowering farmers through farm-level innovation is crucial for promoting soil health and fertiliser use. AGRA and partners have demonstrated that it is possible to reduce the farmer extension ratio from 1:3000 to 1:500 and the last mile from over 22 kilometres to less than eight on average across 11 countries. This strengthens the last mile and allows farmers to have access to both information and technologies. Today, farmers that produce five metric tonnes per hectare can be found in each of these countries - but it must be scaled and anchored in a sustainable private sector ecosystem. 

Research and innovation on soil health: African governments should support local research capacity and infrastructure, including functional soil labs. They must also enable and leverage private sector organisations, facilitating integration between research institutions, universities, and extension services, to enable the development and availability of new technologies to fasten addressing the challenges of soil health. An assessment of investments in research by CGIAR found that over the past 50 years, there had been a 10-dollar return on every dollar invested in research and development. 
Africa has made some impressive progress over the last couple of years. The continent now produces approximately 30 million tonnes of fertiliser each year, which is twice as much as it currently consumes. This increase in local fertiliser manufacturing is the result of over $15 billion in investments by the private sector, primarily focused on local production. 

Second, public-private partnerships have been formed to address challenges related to fertiliser and nutrient use efficiency, research and development, and improved research infrastructures such as soil labs. Third, average fertiliser use at the farm level has more than doubled in the last 18 years since the Abuja declaration. 

However, climate change and externalities such as the Ukraine-Russia war and the Covid-19 pandemic have intensified the challenges faced by African farmers. These external factors have further hindered or reversed the early gains of crop yield enhancement, posing additional obstacles in the path of agricultural development in Africa.

To address all these challenges, opportunities and more, the African Union and its partners are organising the Africa Fertilizer and Soil Health Summit 2024, which is taking take place this week in Nairobi. The summit brings together relevant stakeholders to highlight the crucial role of fertilizer and soil health in stimulating sustainable pro-poor productivity growth in African agriculture. 

The meeting is expected to negotiate for an African-focused fertiliser and soil health action plan, provide policy directions and concrete recommendations that will guide African governments in the next decade, create an operational roadmap to ensure the effective implementation of the action plan, and mobilise policymakers and development organisations as well as other stakeholders to work towards improving soil health and fertiliser use, among other objectives.

By endorsing the action plan to improve soil health and fertiliser use in African agriculture, leaders and stakeholders will show their commitment towards the implementation. The action plan will guide policy decisions and interventions in the next decade.

Sustainable pro-poor productivity growth and economic development in the agricultural sector will only happen when leaders are committed and are prepared to be bold about the necessary commitment and changes the continent must undertake.   

It is my hope that the summit will pave the way for increased collaboration, knowledge sharing, and investments in soil health and fertiliser use, ultimately unlocking the potential of African agriculture. We are constantly reminded of the need to balance human needs and ingenuity with environmental needs, fragility, and finiteness. 

The writer is the president of AGRA