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Africa Hungry for Fertile Soil

In Africa, one in three people is undernourished. One reason: the amount of productive soil is rapidly diminishing, due to over-farming and the lack of fertilizer. If unchecked, experts say the trend will worsen the continent's food shortage.

"Put simply: our quest is to nourish Africa's soil and feed the continent," said Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, a press briefing at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York recently. That vision represents a daunting challenge to realize. Africa's farms are extremely unproductive compared to most of the rest of the world. One important reason for this is the state of its overworked soil, which has been drained of the nutrients that plants need to grow. Most experts agree that more fertilizer, more widely used, is a key to solving the problem.

African farmers, on average, apply less than 10 kilograms of organic and chemical fertilizer per hectare on their crops - less than one tenth the world average. Without enough nutrients, harvests decline. So African farmers try to boost yields by expanding into the forests beyond their farms.

"They are moving to new land, cutting down the trees and then burning them, says Amit Roy, president of the International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development. "The ash from the trees has nutrients which fertilize the soil, they grow crops out of it for a couple of years, extract the nutrients out of it and then it becomes dead, and the soil becomes absolutely unproductive. Then the farmers move into another area."

Once, Africa's population was small enough, and the land vast enough, to tolerate this practice. However, Africa's population is exploding, while the amount of arable land has declined. As farmers penetrate deeper and deeper into virgin forest, erosion problems worsen, and ever greater swaths of land are destroyed.

"…And if we continue to do [it] this way," says Roy, "we will reach a point where the entirety of Africa's biodiversity and [its] wildlife population are going to be threatened. It has already started."

Roy says that it is IFDC's proposal "to make the existing agricultural land more productive through better management of nutrients - which is both fertilizer and organic matter." That way, farmers are able to productively grow crops on their own farmland. "And then we work with them to market their excess and sell their produce and get some income out of it," says Roy.

IFDC has just released a major report on Africa's soil crisis. After a major African Union fertilizer summit planned for June 9-13, steps will be taken to lower Africa's fertilizer costs -- now four to six times the world average -- and create incentives for vastly increased fertilizer production within Africa. But President Obasanjo of Nigeria, who will host the summit, says that adding fertilizer alone is not enough.

"We must use the right types of fertilizers in a judicious and environmentally sound manner," he warns, adding that farmers need to be educated on safe handling and storage and the efficient use of fertilizers to avoid overuse. "We must also pay attention to water use, especially water harvesting and [the] extension and expansion of irrigation," Obasanjo says.

At the same press briefing, Alpha Oumar Konaré, Chairman of the African Union Commission and a former president of Mali, said through a translator that this will help catalyze Africa's own "Green Revolution."

"Without a Green Revolution we will simply remain in the logic of food aid which will never ever end food insecurity," Konaré said. "Without a Green Revolution, we will never be able to create resources and reduce poverty. Without a Green Revolution, we will never be able to have real control of our environment."