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Smarter investment in agriculture needed

…to help Africa feed itself

Soil fertilizer subsidy programmes run by many African governments are heading for failure unless Integrated Soil Fertility Management and good agricultural practice are promoted at the same time, says the Africa Soil Health Consortium (ASHC), a group of scientific and agricultural experts led by the international science and development organization, CABI.

In a video produced for World Soil Day on 5 December 2011, ASHC argues that using mineral fertilizer alone is not enough. It urges policymakers to widen their investments in soil fertility to promote Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) where mineral fertilizer is combined with organic inputs (such as manure, or legume crops) and improved seed varieties in ways that are locally adapted to take account of the soil and socio-economic conditions of farms and farmers.

Decades of increasing intensification of farming to support the rapidly growing population combined with a succession of one-size-fits-all treatments have deprived the soil in much of Africa’s farmland of nutrients, leaving it less fertile and less capable of supporting high yields. “The high price of mineral fertilizers in Africa make subsidies an understandable choice for policymakers to help farmers, but in fact Africa has enormous potential to boost yields by integrating even small amounts of fertilizer with organic inputs and improved varieties,” said George Oduor, Deputy Regional Director (Research), CABI.

The video shows how in West Africa, with limited labour and small financial risks, sorghum and millet farmers apply micro-dosing. By adding small amounts of fertilizer and compost to each planting hole they produce more straw and harvest more cereals that are enough to carry them to the next season.

In East and Central Africa, many farmers have turned to rotating their maize crop with improved varieties of legume crops, such as soya beans and climbing beans. Apart from providing cash, the nitrogen-rich residues help to improve soil fertility and boost maize yields.

“ISFM is as important as the fertilizers themselves if you want to feed your family or sell your produce,” said Oduor. “There is strong evidence both from research and from working with African farmers that not all soils respond well to fertilizers and combining practices is key to improvements in yield, but it is a tall order to expect farmers to implement it by themselves. We are calling on local and national governments, NGOs and private companies to work together to champion ISFM practices across Africa. With the right knowledge, and smart funding choices, we can make a big difference – not only for today, but for generations to come.”