Toyin Kolawole

Addressing Africa’s soil problems would demand that a critical attention be paid to the fundamentals of the African soil peculiarity itself.  Although inevitable, inorganic mineralisation/fertilisation cannot and will never be an ideal entry point for an integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) in sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons are not far-fetched. One, Africa’s soil, as variously argued, is said to be low in cation exchange capacity (CEC). In other words, soils with low CEC tie up essential nutrients making them unavailable for plant use, even in situations where the soil has been adequately and inorganically fertilised. Studies have shown, too, that releasing these essential nutrients are made possible through the application of organic matter. For me, that is the foundation for resolving the Africa’s soil constraints.

Two, majority of small farmers in Africa, as widely claimed, cannot afford the cost of inorganic fertilisers. Getting the products to buy is also a daunting problem for the few who are willing to adopt the technology! Three, some farmers in certain locality (e.g. some community people in North-central Nigeria) do not even see reasons why they should use imported or foreign products to boost the fertility of their farmland. Using such foreign materials would, according to them, spell doom for bumper harvest! This is factual, albeit strange and hard to believe. This brings me to the fundamental issue of culture in the whole debate on soil improvement in Africa.

ISFM, as it were, has not been conceived to ensure the proper incorporation of the cultural dimension of soil management. Harping on other factors ranging from political to social to environmental to economic, no adequate emphasis has been placed on cultural factors of the small farmer. Regardless of any economic rewards brought about by any form of change amongst them, grassroots farmers respond more quickly to their values and cultural belief systems. Any policy framework that does not take cognisance of this all important aspect is almost destined for a stillbirth either in the short or long run.

That said, appropriate policies on soil revitalisation in Africa would start from good governance. A platform for synchronising resources, governance – as reflected in the political economy and ecology of soil management – will need to prioritise both farmers’ and scientific knowledge in the policy formulation process. Rather than pay too much emphasis on science alone, the two bodies of knowledge need be made to work hand in hand without jeopardising the position of any of them.  In other words, local or indigenous knowledge in soil conservation needs a voice as much as science does in policy formulation processes.

Now to the specifics. As organic mineralisation appears to answer the question, national governments need to pay attention to the development of local/indigenous plants [using local raw materials] for the manufacture of organic fertilisers in Africa. A typical example of this ‘fledgling’ initiative can be found in Ibadan, Nigeria. Public-private partnership seems to be the most ideal in the development of this industry as government may not be able to shoulder the responsibility alone. Doubtlessly, farmers are more likely to have access to this product than inorganic fertiliser in terms of costs and availability. As it is locally sourced, problems of adaptation and utilisation might not arise. Sourcing mineral fertilisers to compliment the organic ones would need a radical approach by Africa’s national governments. Distributions and supply needs to be strongly and directly linked with farmer Cooperatives and organisations in order to circumvent the influence of the rent-seeking elite in the [political] corridor of power.

In addition to ISFM, soil recapitalisation may need some urgent attention at this time, too. Agreed that the use of rock phosphates may have its associated problems such as low reactivity, variability and the likes, addressing it through context-specific approach might be meaningful afterall. For instance, Ogun RockPhosphate in Nigeria has been found to be economically viable. It is said to compete favourably well with mineral fertilisers on acidic soils. Its solubility has been enhanced when tried with soil amendments (such as compost and mycorrhizae). It has, thus, been found to be a better source of phosphorus when applied in mixture with organic waste than using it alone (Adediran et al. 2006). This strategy would succeed where there is the ‘political will’ to make it work.

Going beyond the rhetoric of participatory methodologies in soil fertility research, scientists would need to allow farmers take the lead in the process. This is because farmers are good Pedologists and Soil micro-biologists in their own capacity. They know their farm terrain. They know the trends of their soils usage and how they have performed over the years. They could work with researchers to identify local materials for the production of soil amendments. Given a favourable platform, farmers could devise a more appropriate approach and context-specific strategies on soils sustainability. For me, these are some of the important issues for consideration in the development of a policy framework for a sustainable soil management in the 21st Century and beyond in sub-Saharan Africa.

Adediran, J. A., Adeniyan, J. A., Akande, M. O. and Taiwo, L. B. 2006. Effect of application of Ogun Rock Phosphate with organic waste on yield performance of maize and cassava. Proceedings of the 30th Annual Conference of the Soil Science Society of Nigeria. Markudi. 148 – 154.

Toyin Kolawole, PhD
Institute of Development Studies