July 20, 2024

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Africa: There Is an Alternative to Costly, Carbon-Emitting Chemical Fertilisers

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Africa’s soils are not merely depleted but in crisis, and decades of reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides have exacerbated the problem.

At the recent African Union (AU) Fertilizer & Soil Health Summit in Nairobi on 7-9 May, African leaders unveiled the new 10-year Fertilizer and Soil Health Action Plan 2023-2033. Designed to maintain soil fertility and ensure soil health across the continent, the roadmap adopts an approach that combines both chemical and organic fertilisers with improved seeds and agrochemicals.

The plan aims to “significantly increase investments in the local manufacturing and distribution of mineral and organic fertilizers, biofertilizers and biostimulants” and to “triple fertilizer use from 18 kg/ha in 2020 nutrients to 54 kg/ha in 2033”.

Aspects of the 10-year action plan suggest a shift from quick chemical fixes to sustainable practices that enhance biodiversity, regenerate the land, and empower local communities. However, while this hints at a more hopeful imagined future, policymakers at the Nairobi summit largely skirted around the deeper issues at stake. The focus remained narrowly on the production and distribution of predominantly chemical fertilisers, while largely neglecting their broader social, economic, and ecological impacts.

While the spotlight was on increasing fertiliser use, for instance, the sustained health of the soil that feeds us was all but overlooked. Our soils are not merely depleted – they are in crisis. And decades of reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides have not only failed to address this crisis but have exacerbated it, leading to acidification, erosion, and loss of essential microbial diversity. This damage calls for a radical rethink of the use of nitrogen fertilisers and our agricultural practices. We need to move beyond adding more fertilisers towards healing the soil.

The Nairobi summit also ignored another elephant in the room: the massive carbon footprint of conventional fertiliser production. The extensive use of chemical fertilisers is also intricately linked to the fossil fuel industry. Worldwide, agriculture is the second-largest source of climate change pollution – and the manufacture and application of fertilisers play a significant part in that. It is notable that Africa is being urged to triple its fertiliser use at a time when the rest of the world is being encouraged to reduce reliance on these carbon-intensive inputs. Chemical fertilisers exacerbate the very crisis they seek to mitigate.

Another way

Fortunately, there are alternative solutions. Take RODI Kenya, which has become a beacon of innovation in agriculture and soil science. This agency has pioneered the large-scale production of solid and liquid biofertilisers and organic soil amendments. These products are made from locally available ingredients, offering significant benefits to thousands of small-scale farmers who are no longer reliant on costly and polluting imported alternatives. Last year alone, RODI Kenya produced 10,000 tonnes of biofertilisers.

The revenues from this enabled the organisation to support and train many more farmers in adopting agroecological practices, which present another set of solutions to agricultural challenges. Agroecology integrates indigenous knowledge with modern science to create resilient, self-sustaining agricultural systems. This approach empowers communities, particularly women, by promoting biodiversity, nurturing land regeneration, and fostering economic resilience.

The health of Africa’s soils and the future of its agriculture hinge on our ability to listen — to the land and to each other. The oversights in Nairobi reflect a broader systemic issue: a disconnect between high-level policy initiatives and the lived experiences of African farmers, many of whom are women and whose voices are seldom heard in such forums. As we implement the 10-year action plan, let us cultivate a fertile ground for discussions that include all stakeholders, particularly those who work the land day in and day out.

By embracing agroecological principles and recognising the integral role of women in agriculture, we can ensure a thriving, sustainable future for all of Africa. Let us nurture our soil, not merely to produce crops, but to sustain life in all its diversity. As we face the challenges of climate change, let us not repeat the mistakes of the past. Instead, let us forge a new path that respects our environment, empowers our farmers, and secures a sustainable future for all. The 10-year plan offers an opportunity for Africa to lead by example, showing the world that it is possible to address food security and environmental sustainability together.

BY  African Arguments

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