News / Africa

Feed the Soil, Feed the Crops

Using Evergreen Agriculture, Rhoda Mang’yana grows maize near Faidherbia trees to improve crop yields and soil fertility on her farm. (Credit: Jim Richardson)
Using Evergreen Agriculture, Rhoda Mang’yana grows maize near Faidherbia trees to improve crop yields and soil fertility on her farm. (Credit: Jim Richardson)
Joe DeCapua
If African farmers are going to feed the continent, they may first want to feed the soil. Studies show farmland is often depleted of vital nutrients. But researchers say a combination of organic farming methods may help.

Since the global food crisis several years ago, greater investment is being made in smallholder farms. Most of the farms in sub-Saharan Africa are smallholder, consisting of about one or two hectares. One of the goals is to boost yields without necessarily clearing more land to grow additional crops.

Washington State University researchers say that can happen with greater use of an agricultural system called perenniation. It mixes food crops with trees and perennial plants. Soil scientist John Reganold co-wrote an article about it in the journal Nature.

“This system that we call perenniation is one of those systems where you actually plant perennials and it increases both food security and it builds the soil at the same time,” he said.

There’s an old saying that you are what you eat. Plants need nourishment, too, and they get it from the soil.

He said, “One of the major problems is that the soils are fairly poor in most of the regions. And so how do you grow food on poor soils? There have to be food production systems that can build the soil and improve the yield.”

Reganold said that poor soil may have resulted from years of weathering that leaches many of the nutrients. But in some cases farmers may have done more harm than good.

“They have been actually using farming practices where they’re not putting in organic matter. They’re not putting in fertilizers. They can’t afford those things. And it just runs the soil down more. So they’re actually mining the soil. So they’re worsening the situation,” he said.

He said that the major nutrients that farmland needs are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium.

“The big one,” he said, “is nitrogen. That’s the nutrient that the plant demands the most and that’s the fertilizer that’s mostly needed.”

He estimated that up to two billion dollars worth of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium is lost from African soil each year.

That’s where perenniation comes in. It adds nutrients back into the soil.

“We came up with the term perenniation, but the systems have been around for a while. We use the term perenniation. It defines three systems that are already used in Africa. The oldest of the three is called evergreen agriculture and it’s where farmers actually plant trees with their crops. And they’ve been doing this to the best of my knowledge for 60 years, but it’s starting to gain ground,” he said.

It’s gaining widespread use in countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Zambia, among others. The trees are planted among maize, millet or sorghum. They not only add nitrogen to the soil through their roots, but also through their leaves when they fall off and decay. At other times of the year the trees can shade plants from the harsh sun. Reganold said colonial English and French farmers believed crops should be separated from trees, not mixed together.

Besides planting trees, the perenniation also calls for the use of the doubled-up and the push-pull systems. The doubled-up system has farmers mixing pigeon pea plants among soybean and maize crops. Pigeon pea, a large shrub, adds nutrients to the soil, but can later be used for fuel and fodder. Some parts are edible.

The push-pull system also uses perennials, such as napier grass, which is grown around the maize, and desmodium, which is planted among the stalks. Reganold says desmodium 
is a natural pest management system. It pushes away the stem bore moth from the crops, while the napier grass pulls or lures the moth to the perimeter of the crops. Thus push / pull.

Reganold gave an example of one woman who had great success with perenniation.

“She’s a grandmother in her 50s. Her name is Rhoda Mang’yana and she started using this system about 20 years ago. She used actually two of the systems – the doubled-up legume and she also started using these evergreen agriculture trees. And her yields initially were about a ton of maize per hectare. Now with a good year she gets four tons per hectare. Four times what she was getting,” he said.

Reganold and his colleagues said millions of dollars should be invested in perenniation each year. He hopes development NGOs will take up the cause. Reganold co-wrote the Nature article with Jerry Glover of USAID and Cindy Cox of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

You May Like

Photogallery Belgian Security Measures Foreshadow New Normal for Europe

Rising threat of terrorism, disaffected Muslim populations and open borders, along with refugee, migrant crisis, are creating perfect storm for Europe, which some analysts fear continent is ill-suited to weather

Competing Claims of Responsibility for Mali Hotel Attack

Malian authorities ask public for help in identifying gunmen killed in attack, amid conflicting claims of responsibility from multiple jihadist groups active in the country

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

By the Numbers

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs